A bill that would increase criminal penalties for tampering with ballot drop boxes cleared a House committee on Wednesday, although its sponsor said he is unaware of widespread drop box tampering.

HB347, sponsored by Rep. Michael Petersen, R-North Logan, would increase the penalty for drop box tampering from a class A misdemeanor to a third-degree felony, which is punishable with up to five years imprisonment and a fine up to $5,000.

"While it's not been reported yet in Utah, there are numerous sightings around the nation where ballot drop boxes have been set on fire or shot or had the ballots stolen from them," Petersen told the House Government Operations Committee on Wednesday. "And so, this bill just increases the penalty to maybe help make sure folks don't want to engage in those kinds of things here in Utah."

Although he wasn't opposed to the idea of the bill, Rep. Norman Thurston, R-Provo, questioned whether the Utah Legislature's approach to criminal penalties is arbitrary.

"I have been very hesitant to create new felonies," he said. "Felonies are big deals. And ... a class A misdemeanor is a very big deal."

Thurston went on to list several class A misdemeanors, including assaulting a police officer, negligent homicide and sexual battery.

"Now, the problem that I have is yes, this (drop box tampering) is a big deal," Thurston continued. "This is a serious offense. But is it more of a serious offense than sexual battery? Assaulting a police officer?"

Thurston ultimately voted against the bill, along with Democratic Reps. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, and Sahara Hayes, D-Millcreek. HB347 received a 7-3 favorable recommendation from the committee and will head to the full House for consideration.

Election audit bill held in committee

A bill sponsored by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, that would have required the lieutenant governor to contract with independent accounting firms to conduct regular audits of Utah's elections was held by the committee Wednesday afternoon.

HB155 is the latest attempt by Lyman, who has regularly cast doubt on Utah's election system, to address unproven claims of voter fraud in the state.

A legislative audit of the 2022 primary election found no fraud, but that apparently didn't assuage the fears of Lyman and several members of the public who spoke in favor of the bill. Some even pointed to the Academy Awards, which uses the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to audit Oscars ballots, to argue for the bill.

"Is my sacred vote good enough for a similar type of independent audit as the Academy Awards?" Mike Brown, a private citizen, asked the committee. "I would say so."

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, said her biggest concern was that the bill doesn't have "guardrails" to ensure there's no nepotism or corruption in who the lieutenant governor selects to do the audit. She also argued that the sample size of a few hundred ballots collected for each audit wouldn't satisfy those who believe in election fraud because it sounds like they want a "recount," not an audit.

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"I don't think the lieutenant governor should be able to cherry-pick this," she said. "There's nothing in here that has anti-nepotism language. There's nothing in here that prohibits an international organization from putting a bid in for this contract."

Lyman said accounting firms already have strong professional standards for avoiding conflicts of interest and nepotism and didn't commit to adding guardrails to the bill.

"So, we could put that in, (but) it's not going to change what a CPA firm, what their standards are," he said. "They're much, much higher than anything that the Legislature might impose."

The committee voted unanimously to hold Lyman's bill, meaning it will not advance to a full House vote.

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