All-by-mail COVID-19 primary election, high-profile governor’s race spurs high voter turnout

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Lannie Chapman, Salt Lake County Chief Deputy Clerk, prepares primary election ballots for counting at the Salt Lake County Government Center, July 1, 2020. Tuesday was the final canvass for the election.

Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, statewide election results show by-mail voting and a competitive governor’s race helped spur Utah’s best primary election voter turnout in years.

The state saw around 558,000 votes cast in last month’s primary, a raw number that could grow slightly as final canvass results continue to come in late Tuesday, according to State Elections Director Justin Lee. Overall, that’s a 37% turnout rate — much higher than the 29% of voters who cast a ballot in the 2018 primary election.

“We were really concerned [the coronavirus pandemic] would impact turnout significantly, and it didn’t seem to at all,” Lee said in an interview on Tuesday. “This just blows away any primary we’ve had in the past decade or more.”

Turnout was particularly high among Republican Party members this year, with 67% casting a ballot in this year’s election compared to 39% in the 2016 governor’s primary race, in which incumbent Gov. Gary Herbert (who did not run for reelection this year) faced Jonathan Johnson.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox won this year’s Republican primary election in a close contest with former Gov. Jon Huntsman. Cox ultimately brought in 37% of the vote to Huntsman’s 35%, while former House Speaker Greg Hughes trailed behind with 21% and former GOP Chairman Thomas Wright brought up the rear with 8%.

Cox will face University of Utah professor Chris Peterson, a Democrat, in the November general election.

The 1st Congressional District primary race between Democrats Darren Parry and Jamie Cheek also generated high interest, Lee said. In 2018, the primary race in that district brought out 12,712 voters. This year, that number nearly doubled, with around 22,800 ballots cast.

Parry, the former chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, won that race with 51% of the vote to Cheek’s 49%.

The Republican primary race in the 1st Congressional District was also competitive, with businessman Blake Moore beating out Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson with about a 2% margin. But because there was no primary for that seat in 2018, it’s more difficult to compare turnout numbers for that race, Lee said.

The coronavirus pandemic forced election officials to make a number of changes to this year’s June primary election in order to protect poll workers and voters and prevent large gatherings. This year’s election, for example, was conducted almost entirely by mail, though some voters were eligible to appear at drive-thru voting locations in Box Elder, Weber, Davis, Salt Lake, Tooele, Utah and Iron counties.

Lee said about 5,000 voters took advantage of those mobile vote centers, “which shows people really embraced and used vote-by-mail.” Research suggests that voting by mail can boost turnout among millennials and other groups less likely to vote and its widespread use in this year’s primary likely boosted voter turnout compared to 2016, when eight Utah counties did not allow vote-by-mail.

“Utah County was the big county that was missing from that equation” that year, Lee said. “So everyone being vote-by-mail this year certainly increased turnout.”

In another coronavirus-related change, the state also lengthened the typical two-week canvass for counting ballots to three weeks in case election staffers needed to quarantine. That was a fail-safe Lee said ultimately wasn’t necessary, and most ballots still trickled in before the typical 14-day deadline.

As counties finalized their election results on Tuesday, Lee said he wasn’t aware of many recounts, which a losing candidate in Utah can request only when trailing by 0.25 percentage points or less. But there will almost certainly be a recount in Morgan County, which is switching to a commission form of government and where one Commission contest was tied with 541 votes each for Jared Andersen and Cindy Carter as of Tuesday afternoon.

Voters this year ousted a number of state legislative and county government incumbents across the state. Among them was state Sen. Lyle Hillyard, the state’s longest-serving senator, who lost to businessman Chris Wilson by a margin of 63% of the vote to 37%.

Rep. Val Potter has also been ousted, with official election results in Cache County showing he lost by a margin of 966 votes to North Logan resident Mike Petersen. Final election results in Utah County show Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, will barely hold onto his seat with a razor-thin margin of 43 votes over opponent David Shallenberger, an engineer and attorney.

Among the county officials who were ousted this year was Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie, who came out as gay last year. Former Marine Lt. Col. Tom Sakievich ousted Ivie with a 61% to 40% margin that the commissioner speculated was “absolutely” influenced by his sexuality. Sakievich, though, said the race was more about taxes and how the government was run.

Salt Lake County Councilman Max Burdick is also out after Dea Theodore beat him with a 56% to 44% margin. And Tooele Commissioner Shawn Milne lost his race for one of the new council seats as the county changes forms of government to Tooele City Council member Scott Wardle. Wardle won with 49% of the vote, while Milne brought in around 28%.

In Beaver County, County Commission Chairman Michael Dalton — who was seeking a third term — was defeated by challenger Wade Hollingshead by a 66% to 34% margin.

Now that the primary election canvass has been completed, Lee said election officials are beginning to think forward to the November election.

As COVID-19 shows no signs of slowing down over the next few months, Lee said voters should expect the general election to run similarly to the primary, though there will likely be some “minor tweaks,” including more in-person voting centers to accommodate higher turnout for a presidential election year.

“The good news is our normal is not so much different from what other states are doing to deal with COVID, so we don’t have to make that much adjustment,” he said. “Some other states are completely flipping the script on how they run elections.”