Utah lawmakers to consider ‘unprecedented’ election date changes to fill upcoming congressional vacancy
Special legislative session bill would set aside $2.5 million for elections this fall
There’s a $2.5 million price tag for holding special primary and general elections to fill the vacancy that will be left when Rep. Chris Stewart resigns this fall, even though they’re set to be held at the same time as municipal elections.
The Utah Legislature will meet in special session Wednesday to consider HB2001, a bill detailing the plan that Gov. Spencer Cox and legislative leaders laid out last week that moves the municipal election dates to accommodate the 2nd Congressional District race.
Stewart, the longest-serving of Utah’s four all-Republican members of the U.S. House, announced in late May he would step down due to his wife’s health concerns after “an orderly transition can be ensured.” His resignation is effective Sept. 15.
Lawmakers are being asked to shift the municipal primary from Aug. 15 to Sept. 5, and the general municipal election from Nov. 7 to Nov. 21, as well as appropriate $2.5 million for the congressional elections on those days, including $400,000 for voter outreach.
“Honestly, this is unprecedented. We’ve never done this before, moving entire elections, municipal primary and general election dates,” said Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, whose office oversees elections in the state.
She said it would have cost “almost nothing” to add the congressional primary and general elections in a regular election year, when all of the counties already would be running elections. But that’s not the case in a nonpartisan municipal election year.
“We’re going to do our best to make sure that there’s no additional burden to cities and counties, especially those that didn’t budget for this in the first place,” Henderson said. If there are additional costs, she said she expects lawmakers “will make them whole.”
Before settling on the new election dates, Henderson said “we thought of, I think, every single possibility under the sun,” including waiting until Dec. 5 to hold the general election so there would be 90 days from the soonest a congressional primary could be held.
“We could see we could actually shrink that time frame a little bit,” she said, adding, “I think under the circumstances, this is the best option that we could come up with that doesn’t break our system.”
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven, also would eliminate the ability of voters to change their party affiliation to vote in the Republicans’ closed congressional primary.
Voters now have until April in an even-year election to switch parties before a primary, but the bill makes any such changes effective after the September primary once it’s signed into law.
Musselman said that’s because his intent is to “mirror as much as we possibly could the normal election process,” so keeping to the same time frame for the new primary date means the deadline would have passed.
“We can make the arguments as to whether or not that is a viable policy. But that argument really needs to be made in an overall argument (about) our election system, not necessary for this bill,” the representative said.
Because of the political makeup of the 2nd Congressional District that includes much of the western half of the state, Republicans have a significant advantage in the race, so the party’s contested primary could determine Stewart’s successor.
Republican leaders in Washington, D.C., have taken a big interest in Utah’s 2023 election, University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said, since the GOP controls the U.S. House by only a four-seat margin.
U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is “figuring that the 2nd Congressional District in Utah is going to very likely turn back Republican,” Burbank said. “He’d like to see this seat filled as quickly as possible with another Chris Stewart-like Republican.”
Without action by the Legislature, a special election to fill a congressional vacancy in Utah could only be held in conjunction with a municipal or regular general election, a presidential primary, or a regular primary, likely leaving the seat open until next March.
Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, president of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said he anticipated a special election would be called, even though changing the primary and general election dates will affect races in all of Utah’s 255 local entities.
“Given the need of the GOP to maintain a majority in Congress and the composition of our state Legislature, it was inevitable this was going to happen,” Silvestrini, a Democrat, said. ”I would expect that our Republican Legislature would have an interest in ensuring a Republican voice is heard in Congress.”
The impact on municipal elections
But delaying the municipal general election until December would have been “more concerning,” he said, even though newly elected municipal leaders will still have less transition time and the final vote canvass will stretch into the final month of the year.
“I think we’ll figure it out,” said Silvestrini, who’s running for reelection this year as the mayor of a city split between all four congressional districts. “I’m just glad the governor and the Legislature are going to push this two weeks rather than a month.”
Cox “had to make a really tough decision and with the finite amount of resources that we have, I think we’re trying to do the best that we can,” Salt Lake County Clerk Lannie Chapman said, adding, “It’s going to be tricky.”
The primary is now the day after Labor Day and the general election will be held the same week as Thanksgiving, meaning her office will have to budget for holiday pay for election workers. With Utah’s mail-in balloting, the vote count usually continues after Election Day.
That’s on top of the added costs of holding a partisan primary election for the just over 130,000 registered active voters who live in the 2nd District, out of the county’s nearly 600,000 voters.
West Valley City had been the only entity in the county with residents in the 2nd District with a municipal primary, Chapman said, adding “it’s pretty common” for nonpartisan municipal races to not have primaries.
Other places in the county with 2nd District voters — Salt Lake City, Millcreek, Kearns, South Salt Lake and Magna — were not planning to hold primaries because they are participating in this year’s ranked-choice voting pilot project.
The state’s highest-profile municipal race, a challenge to Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall by the city’s former mayor, Rocky Anderson, was already going to be expensive. Now, with two extra weeks of campaigning, the costs are going up.
“For sure the change in date will increase costs, staff costs, media costs, just day-to-day expenses. But what we’re more concerned about is the impact on voters. It will already be a long campaign and voters get fatigued,” Mendenhall’s campaign manager, Ian Koski, said.
“It’s just two more weeks,” Anderson said. “The problem is, it’s going into December and people get exhausted. But I think one of the good things is we’re going to have higher voter turnout, I would imagine, because of the Chris Stewart replacement election.”
Who’s running in the 2nd Congressional District
As of Tuesday afternoon, 17 candidates had filed to run for the seat. The deadline for filing — and for candidates to declare if they intend to gather the 7,000 voter signatures needed to earn a place on the ballot — is 5 p.m. Wednesday.
A candidate can also be nominated for the primary ballot by each of the state’s qualified political parties. Utah Republican Party delegates are meeting June 24 in Delta to choose a candidate.
The 11 Republicans who’ve filed so far include former House Speaker Greg Hughes; former state lawmaker and U.S. Senate candidate Becky Edwards; and former GOP state party chairman Bruce Hough.
Two Democrats have joined the race at this point, Utah Senate Minority Whip Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, and Guy D. Warner of Millcreek.
Unaffiliated candidate Perry Myers, United Utah party candidate January Walker, Libertarian Bradley Garth Green and Constitution party candidate Cassie Easley are also running.