Sandy residents will have to wait to see who their next mayor is after the Sandy City Council voted Thursday night to not certify the election results, putting the city’s election in limbo.
It’s the first time in recent memory — if not Utah’s history — that a city has refused to certify its election results, and it’s sent city, county and state election officials into a scramble over what to do next.
It’s also prompted calls to the Utah Legislature to clarify its ranked choice voting statute, with Sandy and Salt Lake County officials disagreeing over the law. Now they’re looking to state elections officials in the Lt. Governor’s Office to weigh in.
The refusal to certify came from a City Council with four of its seven members who were also candidates in the mayoral race, all competing against each other to fill outgoing Mayor Kurt Bradburn’s seat. The City Council’s own executive director, Mike Applegarth, was also a candidate.
Sandy City Councilwoman Monica Zoltanski currently holds a thin, 21-vote lead over Jim Bennett. But after two motions Thursday — one to reject the results that failed by a 4-2 vote, and one to certify results that failed by a 3-3 vote — the Sandy City Council approved a motion to decline approval of Sandy’s election because the Salt Lake County clerk did not conduct the “complete” recount Sandy leaders believe they’re entitled to.
Mayoral candidate and Sandy City Councilwoman Kris Nicholl initially voted against rejecting the results, but then voted against accepting the results in the second motion.
“I hate this,” City Councilwoman Brooke Christensen, who also ran for mayor, said during the council’s more than two-hour special meeting. “This is one of the worst decisions I think we’ve had to do as a council.”
Christensen voted in the first motion to certify the election results but supported sending a “serious, strongly-worded letter” to the state and the county “telling them to fix their process” or eliminate ranked choice voting as an option.
“It’s just such a mess,” she said.
Monica ‘Z’ abstains
Zoltanski, who didn’t support Sandy conducting a ranked choice voting election this year, arguing the high-profile mayor’s race was “too important to use as a test case,” said the council chose this path when it opted for a ranked choice voting election.
“Well, you all wanted ranked choice voting, and you got it,” she said.
“It is unfair to not me, not Mr. Bennett, but to the voters in this election to create a cloud over the results that we have here tonight before us,” she said. “There’s nobody that wants finality more than me. But also I don’t want to start my new term with a question about the legitimacy of this election.”
So Zoltanski abstained from voting on the first two motions, but she threw her vote behind the third motion, agreeing to urge Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen to conduct a “complete” recount.
When asked for comment Friday, Zoltanski pointed to a statement on her Facebook page, in which she said she could “not in good conscience be the deciding vote with a divided council to certify my own election.”
Why is Sandy in this mess?
Sandy decided to pilot ranked choice voting, meaning the city skipped a primary that ultimately resulted in a crowded field of eight mayoral candidates, including several current and former City Council members.
However the field quickly dwindled to Zoltanski and Bennett. Though the unofficial vote tally remained close, Bennett called Zoltanski on Nov. 4 to concede.
“The Sandy City Council did the right thing last night,” Bennett told the Deseret News. “I don’t expect a recount to change the results, but I do think it will provide a level of confidence in the integrity of the election that the voters of Sandy deserve.”
On Wednesday, Swensen’s office conducted an automatic recount, which was essentially a retabulation of the ranked choice process. Zoltanski held onto her lead. But that’s not what most members of the Sandy City Council expected, wanting a full recount of the ballots.
“Despite assurances from our city attorney and the City Council attorney that the computerized recalculation was valid under the new ranked choice voting statute, some council members wanted more,” she said.
The legality of the City Council’s request for a recount is murky. Swensen’s attorneys have advised the law doesn’t allow for that type of recount for ranked choice voting elections and that Sandy’s election margins weren’t narrow enough to trigger an automatic recount.
“There is nothing the City Council can do to force the clerk to interpret or apply the law in a new way. The clerk is applying state law, not a Sandy ordinance or the will of the City Council,” Zoltanski said.
But Sandy City Attorney Lynn Pace disagreed with Swensen’s interpretation of the law.
“I’ll be honest, the bill has a number of ambiguities and is subject to some interpretation,” Pace told the City Council, but he issued the opinion that Sandy did meet the threshold to trigger a recount.
Election validity a ‘delicate issue’
The Sandy City Council’s own attorney, Tracy Cowdell, urged council members to tread lightly, noting “the validity of elections” is a “delicate issue in the public square.”
“Lynn and I both want to be hyper careful about criticizing that process,” Cowdell said, adding that while they don’t agree with Swensen’s legal interpretation, they believe the Salt Lake County clerk is trusted and competent.
“We don’t want to contribute to a narrative that there’s some sort of problem with our elections.”
But now, Sandy and Salt Lake County are at odds.
Swensen told the Deseret News in an email Friday that her office has received the notice from Sandy, and “our legal counsel will need to respond.”
State election officials to weigh in
Hayden Loftus, elections specialist in the lieutenant governor’s office, said state election officials are planning on weighing in on the issue sometime next week after they have time to sort through the issue.
“We’re currently looking into trying to get some hard and fast definitions that aren’t currently in code that we believe will offer some more guidance on how things should progress or proceed — not only for elections this year, but for potential cities that participate in the (ranked choice voting) pilot program in the future as well,” Loftus said.
Sandy City Councilwoman Cyndi Sharkey noted another city that held a ranked choice voting election, Moab, is now conducting an automatic recount, questioning why that city could get a recount but not Sandy.
There, a one-vote margin decided a council race, so Moab contracted with Utah County to conduct a recount. While Moab’s one-vote margin was clearly within the threshold to trigger an automatic recount, it’s not clear whether Sandy’s 21-vote margin reached that threshold under state law.
“My expectation is not that the results of the election will change,” Sharkey said, contending Sandy’s debate has “nothing to do” with the winner or loser, adding that she expects Zoltanski to be mayor when it’s all said and done.
“It’s just I believe it is both satisfying the public interest and assuring the public confidence,” Sharkey said.
Sandy has set another special meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Monday.