The Utah Legislature took recommendations from a recent election audit to heart last week, passing a bill to implement several suggestions to improve election security and transparency.

Although a legislative audit of Utah's election system found no instances of widespread voter fraud, it noted small discrepancies in the number of ballots cast and the number of votes recorded in some counties.

As a result, the auditors recommended the state adopt a public reconciliation of ballots, which is one of the things HB448 would accomplish.

Bill sponsor Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, told fellow lawmakers his bill adopts 18 of 22 recommendations made by the audit. He grouped the provisions into the following five categories:

  • The bill gives the state's top election official, the lieutenant governor, specific authority and methods to enforce election law. The lieutenant governor's election office "will provide a method of consulting, training, warning, and, if necessary, enforcing our election laws," Maloy told a Senate committee last month.
  • It also improves the use of a statewide voter database to "allow for more consistent and effective use by counties." Maloy said the bill "requires the lieutenant governor's office to manage voter registration activities, analyze county use of a database to ensure the use of building controls monthly and maintains a document describing statutory voter list maintenance for clerks."
  • When it comes to vote count discrepancies, HB448 requires public reconciliation of ballots, requires an immediate count of ballots received and requires chain of custody standards to better track the receipt and count of ballots.
  • HB448 gives election workers more details about what it means for signatures to match and requires signature verification training. Maloy said it also requires a study by the Division of Motor Vehicles and the lieutenant governor's office on how to improve the quality of signatures on file.
  • Lastly, Maloy said the bill strengthens Utah's election audit system by prohibiting an individual from auditing their own work. It also requires the lieutenant governor to study risk-limiting audits for their potential use in the state.

Maloy's bill drew support from election administrators, including Ryan Cowley, state director of elections. Cowley praised the audit's findings of no fraud, but said HB448 is a good step forward for elections in the state.

"This really does give us a roadmap to continue to improve our elections. We feel like our elections are safe and secure. We have clerks that do a great job. But there's always room for improvement there," Cowley told a Senate committee last month. "There has to be a balance between the lieutenant governor and county clerks. They are elected officials that represent the people in their counties. And this bill strikes a great balance between respecting their offices, but also providing a sense of oversight."

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

Major election changes don't reach finish line

While HB448 made relatively minor changes to elections in Utah, the Legislature declined to pass several measures that would have had a more noticeable impact on future elections.

Republicans in Utah have felt a lot of angst recently over who can have a say in picking the party's general election candidate. A recent bill would have gutted the signature-gathering path to the primary ballot, effectively requiring all GOP candidates show up and win over delegates at convention.

Opponents of the bill said it would lead to more extreme candidates winning office, because convention delegates are widely seen as more ideological than the average conservative voter.

HB393 passed the House 43-26, but did not come up for a vote in the Senate before the session ended Friday.

Similarly, lawmakers allowed the clock to run out on a proposed constitutional amendment that would have raised the bar for passing ballot initiatives that raise taxes.

Currently, such initiatives can pass with a simple majority vote, but HJR17 would have asked voters to approve increasing the threshold to 60% of voters.

The resolution passed the House 56-16, but wasn't considered in the Senate.