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How did Mike Lee supporters get so many tickets for his debate against Evan McMullin? An ‘unfortunate miscommunication’

Utah Debate Commission audit looks for ways to put campaigns, universities and the public on equal footing

SHARE How did Mike Lee supporters get so many tickets for his debate against Evan McMullin? An ‘unfortunate miscommunication’
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Evan McMullin, U.S. Senate candidate, shake hands at a debate at Utah Valley University.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Evan McMullin, U.S. Senate candidate, shake hands at the debate at UVU in Orem on Oct. 17, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Supporters of Sen. Mike Lee greatly outnumbered those of independent Evan McMullin at their only debate in the Utah Senate race last fall and were admonished several times for disruptive and disrespectful behavior.

Despite being told to refrain from clapping during the Oct. 17 event at Utah Valley University, the decidedly pro-Lee audience cheered and applauded the Republican senator and booed McMullin, prompting moderator Doug Wright to plead for quiet.

Due to the disruptions, the Utah Debate Commission conducted an independent internal review of the ticketing process to determine how the audience so disproportionately favored Lee.

The review, released Tuesday, found that Lee’s campaign was monitoring UVU’s online ticketing site and waiting for the access page for tickets to go live. Once tickets were available, many Lee supporters reserved tickets and they were gone in less than two hours.

Phil Cooper, a CPA and debate commission treasurer who conducted the audit, attributed the audience disparity to an “unfortunate miscommunication.”

“I found no evidence that the Lee campaign was ‘tipped off,’ received inappropriate inside information or received advance notice of the timing for ticket availability,” Cooper wrote. “Rather, it appears that they became aware from checking the ticketing site regularly.”

Lee defeated McMullin by about 11 points last November in the most competitive Senate race in Utah in decades.

According to the review, the ticketing site went live at 1:20 p.m. on Oct. 4. Erik Nielsen, debate commission executive director, alerted both campaigns to the live site in an email at 6:48 p.m. There was a window of about 512 hours between the moment that the ticketing site went live and Nielsen’s email.

At 1:50 p.m., Lee Lonsberry, Lee’s communication director, reserved two general public tickets. Within the next hour, 93% of the general public tickets were gone and the remainder were reserved by 4:26 p.m., according to the report.

“I could not verify from the reservation list that all in-person general public ticket reservations were connected to the Lee campaign,” Cooper wrote.

“However, based on the makeup of the audience, the intensity of the ticketing activity starting at 1:50 p.m. and reporting by the Salt Lake Tribune, it appears that most, if not all, of the available in-person general public tickets were reserved by people affiliated with the Lee campaign within the first three hours.”

The McMullin campaign didn’t know the ticketing site was live until receiving Nielsen’s email at 6:48 p.m. At that point, all in-person tickets were gone.

“The timing between the ticket site going live and the email from Nielsen to the respective campaigns appears to be an unfortunate miscommunication,” Cooper wrote.

The Lee campaign’s assertiveness and near-constant monitoring gave them an advantage given the unfortunate timing of Nielsen’s email, according to Cooper.

The Utah Debate Commission says it now recognizes that existing guardrails for the ticketing process are no longer adequate to ensure a peaceful debate. It intends to address the issue going forward so that all parties, from the universities to the campaigns, operate on an equal footing.

Recommendations from the report include:

  • A majority of audience seats will be guaranteed for host universities to distribute to students, faculty and salaried employees.
  • Tickets for Utah residents will be managed by a single, designated university representative to avoid inconsistencies in communication.
  • There will be controlled reserved seating for VIPs and campaigns, based on venue and availability.
  • The commission will proactively announce the day and time when public tickets will become available.
  • Evaluate the benefits of reverting to paper tickets.
  • Host universities will create a plan to enforce Utah Debate Commission audience guidelines and address and control unruly outbursts.