Add Utah’s primary election to the list of events that will look different this year, in another side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic that has seeped into nearly every aspect of day-to-day life.
Poll locations will be closed on election day Tuesday to keep groups of people from gathering in close lines and breathing on the same voting equipment, and all voting will be conducted by mail instead. Ballots will be quarantined for 24 hours out of “an abundance of caution.” And election night watch parties will adapt, too, with some candidates encouraging mask wearing or virtual attendance.
Even the results won’t come in at the normal time.
Utahns typically have to postmark their ballot the day before election day but will be able to do that the day of the election for this year’s primary. But out of concern that someone could postmark a ballot after polls close at 8 p.m., election results won’t be released until 10 p.m.
And with the extension of the typical two-week canvass for counting ballots to three weeks in case election staffers need to quarantine, officials are cautioning that voters and candidates should prepare for a longer-than-usual wait before any results are final.
“There’s certainly a possibility we’ll be a couple weeks out before we know where some of these close races are at,” said Justin Lee, the state’s director of elections in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, though he noted the timeline will depend on how high turnout is and other factors.
Longtime Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said this year’s election has presented many challenges for her team as election workers have had to pivot to entirely new processes while also striving to protect themselves and voters from the threat of the novel coronavirus.
Ballot counters are now equipped with shields, masks, hand sanitizer and gloves — everything but a full body suit, she said. They’re also socially distancing from one another, which means fewer people are counting ballots.
And all this comes at a time when the county anticipates higher-than-usual turnout for the primary election contest.
“There’s just a huge amount of interest in elections overall at this point in time, and I think COVID is one thing. I think the national demonstrations [against police brutality], I think all of that has played into this,” Swensen said, adding that the “high-profile contest in the state as far as governor [and] attorney general” are also contributing.
Since June 2, the county has seen higher-than-average voter registration, Swensen said. Statewide, thousands more Utahns have switched their party affiliations to take part in the high-profile Republican primary for Utah governor.
There will be no in-person registration at the polls Tuesday, but unaffiliated voters can affiliate at drive-thru voting locations in Box Elder, Weber, Davis, Salt Lake, Tooele, Utah and Iron counties. Those centers are also available to voters who have lost their ballot, need a provisional ballot because of a move or require some other kind of assistance.
Swensen said Salt Lake County’s 12 drive-up locations will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, but she encouraged voters who want to affiliate to make sure they’re actually unaffiliated and others to check whether their party has a primary before coming.
“We don’t want those drive-thru locations overwhelmed by people who don’t even have a reason to be there,” she said.
The highest-profile primary race is this year’s election for governor — a seat that hasn’t been open in Utah since 1992.
There are four Republican candidates vying for that post: Lt. Gov Spencer Cox, former House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Gov. Jon Huntsman and former GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.
Cox was an early entrant to the gubernatorial race and dominated the field until late 2019, when Huntsman arrived home from his diplomatic posting in Russia and made the long-anticipated announcement that he would campaign for his old job.
His arrival in the contest set up what one political scientist called a “showdown for the ages,” pitting an experienced former governor against a charismatic lieutenant governor. Sure enough, the two men have been the consistent front-runners in the polls since last year, although Cox has maintained a small lead in most of them.
Hughes has also gained ground during the race as he’s sought to rally conservative voters to his campaign. He succeeded with the GOP faithful, who picked him and Cox as their two favorite gubernatorial candidates during the party’s nominating convention. Still, most polls still have him lagging behind Huntsman and Cox.
Wright has remained in the back of the pack over the past few months — outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert at one point even encouraged him to drop out and endorse Cox, the governor’s preferred successor. But the real estate broker was determined to stay in the contest until the end, despite struggling to build momentum.
Campaign finance reports show the race has cost more than $6.5 million so far, with Cox spending the most at about $2.1 million. The competitors have tapped their family fortunes to finance their bids and have drawn hundreds of thousands of dollars from political allies and special interests. Hughes has loaned himself nearly $360,000 to support his campaign through the past few weeks of the primary contest, while Wright also supported his bid with a $300,000 loan.
But the coronavirus was the defining feature of the race, virtually eliminating in-person contact with voters for a stretch of time and forcing the candidates to rework their platforms in anticipation of a lengthy public health crisis and its economic consequences. The pandemic also sidelined two of the candidates: Cox had to leave the campaign trail to help lead the state’s COVID-19 response, and Huntsman had to go into quarantine this month when he and his wife, Mary Kaye, contracted the illness.
Whoever wins Tuesday will go on to face Democrat Chris Peterson in November’s general election to replace Herbert, who is not running for reelection.
Attorney general’s race
In the race for Utah attorney general, incumbent Sean Reyes faces a challenge from Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, the brother of former Gov. Mike Leavitt. The winner will go on to the November election to face Democrat Greg Skordas.
The race has been characterized by harsh attacks lobbed back and forth between the two candidates. At a debate earlier this month, Leavitt accused Reyes of keeping a “for sale” sign on the attorney general’s office, doing the bidding of big donors, failing to properly oversee controversial no-bid contracts and ignoring Utah issues to seek fame on international human trafficking raids.
Reyes fired back, calling Leavitt unqualified, saying that his justice reform proposals are unrealistic and too expensive and that he spent much of the past decade in the Ukraine advising its government while Reyes was working in Utah.
A recent Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University poll showed the race is close, with undecided voters outnumbering the supporters of either candidate. Reyes led in that poll with 30.8% support to 26% for Leavitt.
4th Congressional District
Four Republicans are running to unseat Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah’s only Democrat in Congress. He won election to the district made up mostly of voters in Salt Lake and Utah counties by a margin of fewer than 800 votes in 2018 and is considered one of the most vulnerable House members in this year’s elections.
The candidates vying for the Republican nominee are former NFL player Burgess Owens, nonprofit executive Trent Christensen, former radio host Jay McFarland and state Rep. Kim Coleman. Tuesday’s primary will determine which of them takes on McAdams, who does not face a primary challenger, in November.
At a recent debate, the Republican candidates carefully lauded the president, who is popular among hardcore Republicans but less beloved in the more moderate 4th Congressional District. They also expressed opposition for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and said they would vote to repeal it.
All of the candidates except McFarland said early this month they were not wearing masks in public, despite advice from health officials to do so to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
Former Republican Congresswoman Mia Love, whom McAdams beat to win the seat, has endorsed Coleman in the race.
1st Congressional District
Four Republican candidates are vying to replace retiring Rep. Rob Bishop (who’s currently on Wright’s gubernatorial ticket as lieutenant governor) in the congressional district covering northern and eastern Utah.
Bishop has served that district for 18 years. Before him, the late Rep. Jim Hansen held the seat for 22 years.
The candidates are former Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson, businessman and former foreign service officer Blake Moore, Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson and Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt.
Witt’s campaign has been dogged by controversy. She was recently censured by her City Council for her support of a proposed concert to protest and openly defy COVID-19 restrictions that was ultimately held in Cedar City. Moore, in the meantime, has been criticized for not living in the district, and Gibson has attracted a long string of controversies in his government positions.
Democrats also have a primary in the 1st Congressional District, a seat that party has not won in 40 years. In that race are progressive candidate Jamie Cheek and moderate Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation.
State legislative seats
All House members and half the state’s senators are up for election this year, and several incumbents are facing intraparty challengers in Tuesday’s primary.
The state’s failed tax reform push — which the Legislature eventually voted to overturn amid a grassroots referendum that had gathered enough signatures for the November ballot — is one of the salient issues playing out in a handful of those races as incumbents face opponents who were part of the effort to overturn the unpopular bill.
Among the races to watch is in Senate District 25, where Sen. Lyle Hillyard, who sponsored the legislation, will face businessman Chris Wilson in a race where he’s made a frequent issue of the tax reform package.
A similar challenge is playing out in Senate District 10, where Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, a South Jordan Republican who voted for the legislation, faces a contest from Rich Cunningham, a former state lawmaker who gathered signatures for the referendum.
Winners have already been determined in 11 of Utah’s 90 legislative races this year, with nine Republicans and two Democratic incumbents running unopposed. In another four contests, GOP members are challenged only by candidates from minor parties that haven’t won a state election here in decades.
— Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report
Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.