A large majority of Utahns trust that their state will conduct a fair election in 2022 — but they’re more split over whether the 2020 election should be audited.
That’s according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, which was conducted after Utah’s election system was at the center of debate in recent months.
In October, a Republican state lawmaker, Rep. Steve Christiansen, who later resigned amid backlash, led a rally on Utah’s Capitol Hill and spearheaded a committee hearing fraught with misinformation to call for an Arizona-style, “forensic” audit of Utah’s elections, even though former President Donald Trump handily won the state in 2020.
In the wake of those events, a GOP-controlled committee of Utah lawmakers voted in December to approve a legislative audit of the state’s election system — but it’s important to note the audit they ordered is not like the one conducted in Arizona. Instead, it’s similar to an audit the Utah Legislature already conducted in 2019, meant to “assess the integrity and accuracy of voter rolls, the legitimacy and security of submitted ballots, and the systems and processes within election offices,” according to House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, who requested the audit.
Democrats argued against the legislative audit, questioning whether it was necessary and worrying it would only fan unsupported doubts over Utah’s election system. But Schultz pushed back, asking, “What are you so afraid of?”
“I believe it is important to provide assurance to Utahns that our election systems and processes continue to be well-secured, fair, and above reproach,” Schultz said in December. “Why would we not want to assess what works well and what could be done better in our election systems?”
What do Utahns think about an election audit?
The poll found 81% of Utahns said they’re “confident” that their state or local government officials will conduct a fair and accurate election in 2022. Only 17% said they were not confident, while 3% said they didn’t know.
However, when asked whether they support or oppose an audit by the state government of the 2020 election, Utahns’ opinions are far more split. Still, a majority said they oppose such an audit.
According to the poll, 40% of Utahns said they support an audit, while 49% said they oppose. About 12% said they didn’t know.
Dan Jones & Associates conducted the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll of 815 registered Utah voters Jan. 20-28. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.43 percentage points.
Compare that to results of a different poll — one commissioned by House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. It was conducted by the same pollster of 814 Utahns the first two weeks of January with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.43 percentage points, according to Wilson’s office. Wilson said that poll was paid for out of funds from his leadership political action committee.
Wilson’s poll did not ask about the 2020 election, but told respondents “several Utah lawmakers requested a legislative audit of Utah’s election process that would be conducted as part of the Legislative Auditor’s regular duties.” It then asked if they “support or oppose a legislative audit of Utah’s election process.”
Only 21% said they oppose, while 67% said they support. About 12% said they didn’t know, according to the poll results distributed by Wilson’s office.
The contrast between the two polls indicates the 2020 election, even more than a year later, continues to be a polarizing topic even in a state where Trump clearly won.
“I think we all know why” the topic of a 2020 election audit is more polarizing for Utahns, Wilson said in a recent media availability when asked about the poll.
But even though it’s a “lightning rod,” Wilson said that “doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still make sure that our election systems are healthy prospectively.”
Schultz said he “went to great lengths,” when he requested the legislative audit, “to say that it is not about the 2020” election. Instead, the legislative audit is focused on the “systems, processes, voter rolls” and their accuracy.
Wilson also added Utah has transitioned over the last several years from traditional polling locations to voting by mail, “and I think it’s a pretty logical thing to say, ‘Why don’t we just see how that massive change in the way people vote is working?’ And my personal opinion is I think it’s working really well.”
Asked if a legislative audit is necessary given the poll’s results that 81% of Utahns are confident in their elections, Wilson said state leaders “audit a lot of things on a systematic basis” in search of ways to improve, “and that’s the case with elections as well.”
Schultz said Utahns want to see “checks and balances in place, and I think that’s important.”
Utahns aren’t interested in ‘re-litigating’ 2020
Utah’s top election official, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, told the Deseret News in a recent interview about the poll that it’s important to recognize there’s a big difference between a legislative audit like the one lawmakers have requested (which she supports) and an audit of the 2020 election.
Based on the poll results, Henderson said it’s clear Utahns “are not interested in re-litigating 2020.”
“They’re interested in moving forward,” she said while explaining her support of the legislative audit. “Understanding our election processes and the systems that are in place is a legitimate thing for the Legislature to look into.”
Looking at the polls’ results, Henderson said there’s “clearly public support of that, and I’m supportive of it as well.”
In December, when lawmakers ordered the legislative audit, Henderson said she welcomed it, but also expressed concern that the narrative around it cast doubt on the safety, security and accuracy of Utah’s elections. After Christiansen’s rally and committee hearing, Henderson and Gov. Spencer Cox said they were left “frustrated by the misinformation” that flowed freely during the hearing.
“I am concerned about feeding the fire of some people who have made it their life’s mission to sow seeds of doubt in the integrity of our elections systems, and that is of great worry to me,” Henderson said in December.
Asked about the poll results that indicate Utahns are more split when it comes to auditing the 2020 election, Henderson said “calls for re-litigation of the 2020 election or forensic audits or whatever are meant to divide.”
“They are meant to undermine confidence and public trust in our elections systems in general,” she said. “And that’s unfortunate, and it’s a little bit alarming that we would have elected officials doing that.”
Henderson said those who are calling for an audit of the 2020 election “are not going to be satisfied with a legislative audit of our elections systems. That’s not what they want. That’s not what they asked for, and that’s not going to satisfy them.”
“But those are very, very few,” she added. “That’s a very small percentage of people. And it’s really largely driven by people from out of state who don’t understand Utah, who don’t understand our election system, who are deliberately causing this public froth — or trying to anyway,” she said. “So I don’t think those people will ever be satisfied. They certainly won’t be satisfied by a legislative audit of our elections systems.”
But Henderson said she’s “not worried about those people.”
“What I’m worried about is making sure everyone else in this state — the 81% who are confident that we’ll run good elections — that we maintain their trust and their confidence,” she said. “And yes, we want to try to improve that number and get at the other 19%, too, and try to help them be confident.”
Henderson said she’s “not surprised” by the 81% who said they’re confident, adding that she’s seen Utahns express “very high” confidence numbers before.
“Citizens of Utah are confident in how our elections are run in this state, and I’m really gratified to see that they still are, that that confidence continues,” she said.
The legislative audit may very well shed light on “some things we can do differently and better,” Henderson added, noting that she’s been working with county clerks “to look at our systems and identify things we can do this year” with or without legislation to improve systems, “and we’re going to be sure to start taking those steps.”
Henderson said state officials “want to be very open and transparent” with Utah’s election processes, and they also want Utahns to know “we take the law very seriously, and that we safeguard their information.”
“If they know that we will do that, I think that they’ll have confidence in us,” she said. “If they believe that we’re going to, you know, make things up as we go along or give in to demands that are unlawful, then I think that confidence is diminished, but clearly, gratefully, the people of the state of Utah have confidence in our elections systems.”
At the same time, Henderson said lawmakers who are interested in reforms or auditing the state’s current systems “have good intentions, and they truly want to bolster public confidence.
“We’re OK with looking at our systems and improving areas that need improvement. That’s good and that’s healthy,” she said. “But what we can’t be doing is deliberately undermining and calling into question results of the past.”