Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox will distance himself from making calls on election complaints in the governor’s race in which he’s a candidate

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox hands over the certified election results decree signed by fellow members of the state board of canvassers, Nov. 26, 2018 in the Utah Capitol boardroom. Cox has announced he will distance himself from election complaint decisions as he runs for governor, although he still will be responsible for making a final call.

As lieutenant governor of Utah, Spencer Cox’s duties include making calls on election complaints, including ensuring compliance with campaign finance law.

But as a candidate for governor, Cox has announced he will essentially recuse himself from any complaints or controversies involving the race or his candidacy “as a safeguard to ensure the integrity of the Elections Office.”

Instead, those matters will largely be left up to former Lt. Gov. Gayle McKeachnie, who has agreed to act as a neutral third-party arbiter. However, Cox will make a final decision in accord with his official responsibilities outlined in state law.

State code says “The election officer shall render all interpretations and make all initial decisions about controversies or other matters arising under this [elections] chapter.”

The process the office has now set up requires McKeachnie to make a recommendation in writing — a record that will be public — in consultation with Elections Office staff and attorneys.

“We have seen controversies arise in other states when the top elections official runs for office. The Office of Lt. Governor belongs to the people of Utah — not to me — and Utahns need to have assurances that I will never use my position to benefit my own campaign,” Cox said in a prepared statement.

"I believe that these new procedures will help the Elections Office to maintain public confidence, and more importantly, ensure the integrity of our elections.”

While some prospective gubernatorial candidates have privately raised questions about having Cox in charge of election disputes, Elections Director Justin Lee said Wednesday that no complaints have been received in the race and the office has been preparing to establish its new protocol.

The decision to bring in an outside adviser was outlined in a memo that Cox provided to his staff last month before he officially announced his candidacy, although the announcement had been expected for months.

Cox described McKeachnie as “well respected” and bringing “years of wisdom and experience.”

He served as lieutenant governor from 2003-2004 under then-Gov. Olene Walker.

An attorney and Vernal resident, McKeachnie served in the Legislature from 1979 to 1987, where he was a colleague of Walker’s in the House Republican Caucus.

He was appointed by Gov. Norman Bangerter in 1987 to the state’s Constitutional Revision Commission, serving 12 years, including a decade as its chairman. He was a Utah State University trustee, served as one of 13 Utah State Bar commissioners and was appointed by the state Supreme Court to the Judicial Conduct Commission, which investigates and prosecutes allegations of misconduct against judges.