Movement to audit 2020 Utah elections stalls with opposition from clerks, lieutenant governor

Those supporting an election audit in Utah rally outside of the Utah State Capitol on Oct. 20. A movement to challenge the 2020 election was met with opposition from Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Diedre Henderson. (Joel Campbell)

A legislative committee failed to take any action after more than 200 people rallied outside the Utah State Capitol Wednesday morning, Oct. 20, in favor of a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election.

The rally was inspired by Rep. Steve Christiansen, R-West Jordan, who in addition to an Arizona-style election audit, is calling for an end to private donations to election activities, such as those from the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation during the 2020 election, an end to ranked-choice voting, and an end to vote by mail (except in cases when the voter is traveling or immobilized). 

Christiansen’s proposals raised concerns for legislators on both sides of the aisle about undermining voter confidence, including Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson — the state’s top election officer — who released a joint public statement expressing frustration with “misinformation,” and Democratic Sen. Derek Kitchen, Salt Lake City, who called Christiansen’s push for an audit “senseless and damaging.” 

“By entertaining these types of extreme, far-right objectives and conspiracy theories in a formal, legislative setting, the Legislature is not only acting in bad faith but is also wasting taxpayer money,” Kitchen said in a news release. “Lawmakers should thoughtfully be deliberating solutions, not chasing Fox News rabbit holes.”

Christiansen, the director of presiding bishopric projects for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave the opening presentation at the Judiciary Interim Committee meeting following the rally on Wednesday. He said in his presentation that he is not claiming election fraud exists in Utah, but that an independent audit is necessary to determine whether there is fraud.

There was standing room only in the meeting. Those making public comment had to be ushered in and out of the room to provide space for everyone, and audience members had to be reminded several times to be silent during the proceedings. 

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, the committee’s chair, had borrowed “Guido the Gavel” for the occasion, “Just in case law enforcement needs some backup.” The joke only slightly eased the tension that was palpable in the room from concerned residents, some of whom, like Daphne Thomas, had made the five-hour drive from southern Utah’s Washington County to attend the meeting. 

“I think there’s enough uncertainty going on right now that it only seems fair,” Thomas said of holding an independent audit. “Why not do an audit?”

Two meeting attendees were immigrants, Oswaldo and Ana deMoura, who came from Bountiful to voice their concern that without independent audits, Utah’s elections are at risk of corruption they say is prevalent in their homeland of Brazil.

“It’s way above Republicans and Democrats,” Oswaldo said of the issue. 

Christiansen opened his remarks with a quote from John Jay stating that “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers.” He then proceeded to argue that despite the fact Donald Trump won the vote in Utah, Utah’s elections cannot be proven to be secure without an independent audit. “If we do an audit and we’re clean, I’ve done my job.”

As evidence for his proposals, Christiansen cited a Rasmussen Reports poll showing that 55% of voters support election audits, and a Big Data Poll that showed 53% of Utahns believe that vote by mail increases fraud.

Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, called the numbers into question, citing the fact that Big Data Poll has been banned by some poll analysis sites. One of those sites is ABC News-owned FiveThirtyEight. Rasmussen Reports is right-center biased according to Media Bias Fact Check.

Snow also said Christiansen was being potentially unfair to Utah County clerks, whom Snow labeled as being “above reproach.” The idea that any government official should be above scrutiny provoked outrage among several residents, which they expressed during public comment. 

As Lisonbee noted, the Judiciary Interim Committee does not have the power to call for an audit, only to discuss legislative solutions. The legislative solutions Christiansen proposed are:

  • allowing mail-in ballots for only those traveling or immobilized
  • counting ballots with volunteers at the precinct level
  • require photo ID when an absentee ballot is authorized or at the polling location
  • prevent private funds from paying for registration or other election activities
  • perform independent audits on an ongoing basis. 

Following Christiansen’s presentation, Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, presented with Henderson and Weber County Clerk/Auditor Ricky Hatch. The presentation detailed risks inherent in the election system, as well as safeguards already in place to mitigate those risks. 

“Utah’s elections are secure, accurate and trustworthy. At the same time, we fully recognize that voter confidence across the country is suffering, and even with our exemplary system, Utah is no exception,” Hatch said.

Hawkins and Henderson did acknowledge there were improvements that could be made, and outlined several legislative solutions that could be taken to safeguard Utah’s elections, including having the lieutenant governor create an audit policy and randomly audit voter registration records each month.  

Hatch encouraged Utah residents to visit their county clerk to see election processes for themselves. “We’re in the middle of municipal elections; this is a great time to visit your county clerk’s office,” he said. “Come see how we’re addressing the risks. Come look at the system with an actual elections expert and don’t rely on the words of others. We think you’ll be comforted by the current safeguards and processes.”

Henderson said she recently visited 21 of the 29 Utah County clerks and that she is confident the rule of law is being followed. She also voiced her support for current policies that she said increase ballot access, such as vote by mail. She voiced her concern that overturning such policies would lead to voter suppression. 

“I fear the talk that has been circulating is serving to undermine, deliberately undermine, voter confidence and it concerns me greatly, because it becomes a threat to our democracy, it becomes a threat to our constitutional republic, and it becomes a threat to our freedom,” Henderson said.

The purpose of Judiciary Interim Committee meetings is to present possible legislation before the upcoming legislative session in January. The proposals made by senators and representatives during the meeting may make their way into legislation during the 2022 session.

An audio recording from the Judiciary Interim Committee meeting can be found in the archives. 

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