By LINDSAY WHITEHURST Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — In the face of a global pandemic, the Utah lawmakers voted to run an upcoming primary election entirely by mail Thursday and temporarily do away with traditional polling places.
The June 30 primary will be key in choosing the next governor. A crowded field of candidates, including Republicans Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former U.S. Russia ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr., are competing for the seat open for the first time in more than a decade.
Lawmakers weighed in during their first virtual special session, held remotely to address the coronavirus pandemic that has caused widespread shutdowns around the country to try and halt the spread of the disease. The Legislature is considering proposals on everything from budgets to the balance of power during the meeting that continues Friday.
Most of conservative Utah already votes by mail, in contrast with the by-mail voting skepticism from national Republicans like President Donald Trump.
“We’ve got a system in place that is already working well … most people feel comfortable with what we have in place,” Republican House sponsor Rep. Jefferson Moss said.
The bill would automatically repeal on Aug. 1, so in-person voting can return for the general election in November.
Counties still usually open polling places for people who want to vote in person, staffed by poll workers who are often older adults who are considered most vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“The intent is not having a bunch of people on voting day crammed in a room,” Moss said. The bill would also suspend in-person early voting and same-day voter registration and give staffers more time to count ballots to ensure they are safe.
Some counties will offer mobile voting from inside cars, but officials are mounting a campaign to encourage people to send the ballots through the mail, with accommodations for disabled voters. The postmark deadline has been extended to Election Day.
For people who don’t have or can’t afford a stamp, the Postal Service has pledged to deliver ballots regardless and work out payment with counties later, Democratic Rep. Brian King pointed out.
Because it’s a primary election, only voters who are registered with a particular party will automatically get a ballot in the mail. Unaffiliated voters will get a notice telling them how to request a ballot. The proposal would not supersede court orders in San Juan County, where judges have ordered accommodations for Navajo voters who say by-mail voting puts them at a disadvantage because of the lack of traditional street addresses.
Also Thursday, the Utah House passed a proposal that would rein in the governor’s emergency powers by requiring that lawmakers be notified of orders 48 hours in advance, unless lives are at risk. Supporters said lawmakers should be aware of decisions like school closures ahead of time, but opponents said it could slow down the governor in times of crisis. It now goes to the Senate.