Burgess Owens claims Democrats are trying to ‘steal the election’ in fundraising emails

(Kristin Murphy | Deseret News/pool file photo) 4th Congressional District candidate Burgess Owens participates in a Utah Debate Commission debate with his opponent Rep. Ben McAdams, not pictured, at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

Editor’s note: When final votes were counted nearly two weeks after the election, Republican Burgess Owens won the election.

Republican Burgess Owens’ campaign is parroting claims from President Donald Trump that Democrats are attempting to “steal the election” away from Republicans — but those claims are only showing up in fundraising emails.

An email sent Wednesday made the explicit claim that Democrats were planning to “steal” the election in Utah’s 4th Congressional District, where Owens holds a 1,616-vote lead over Democrat Ben McAdams.

“Don’t let Burgess be robbed of a conservative victory here in Utah,” read the fundraising appeal, alleging “shady, last-minute tactics” from Democrats.

Fundraising email from Republican Burgess Owens

Fundraising email from Republican Burgess Owens

Despite that explosive claim, it appears that Owens' campaign is “crying wolf” to goose campaign donations.

Utah elections officials say they haven’t received any legitimate complaints about voter fraud in Utah, and none made by candidates or campaigns.

“No complaints with any real substance to them. We’ve received a handful of calls from people worried about fraud in general, but nothing specific,” said Utah Director of Elections Justin Lee. He added that, to his knowledge, there have been no specific allegations of fraud made by any campaigns.

Utah County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner says her office has not received a single claim of election fraud from voters or candidates.

“We’re checking out a few signatures that didn’t match,” said Powers in a text message.

Even Utah Gov.-elect Spencer Cox also threw cold water on claims of voter fraud during an interview with CNN on Wednesday night, saying there’s “no evidence.”

Jesse Ranney, Owens' campaign manager, said in an interview Thursday that the campaign has heard allegations of voting irregularities from several people in Utah and is “looking into” those claims. But he said the campaign’s main concern as it relates to the election “right now is we’re being told all the random numbers on how many ballots are actually turned in” in Salt Lake County.

The Salt Lake County Clerk’s office said there were several thousand remaining regular ballots as of Wednesday night, along with about 1,500 “cure” ballots, or those with missing or unverified signatures and 11,278 provisional ballots.

On Tuesday, Ranney noted the campaign was told there were 29,000 ballots left, including provisionals. “And then 33,000 are released and now there’s 11,000 plus left?” Ranney said.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday but has told The Salt Lake Tribune on multiple occasions that the count for remaining ballots is a “moving target,” given the uncertainty around how many provisional and cure ballots will be verified and the potential for late arriving ballots in the mail.

Owens appears to be following Trump’s playbook, using unfounded claims of voter fraud and election irregularities to rake in cash. The Trump campaign has sent out dozens of fundraising emails claiming a stolen election. But a huge chunk of those donations won’t go toward the stated purpose of combating election fraud. Instead, most of the money will pay off Trump campaign debt, and go to a new Trump super PAC and the Republican National Committee.

Owens' emails ask donors to chip into an “Election Integrity Fund.” Clicking the red banner screaming “DON’T LET DEMOCRATS STEAL THE ELECTION” takes you to a donation site set up on the WinRed online fundraising platform that appears to be identical to the normal fundraising site linked on Owens' homepage.

It’s not clear whether the donations are going to a separate fund for legal issues, or treated like regular campaign donations. The Federal Election Commission does allow campaigns to create separate funds to combat legal issues, but that money must be used exclusively for that purpose and administered independently from the campaign. There is no indication on any of the fundraising emails that the money will go to a separate fund. If that’s not the case, then they will be treated like regular campaign contributions, and subject to legal limitations.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the race could result in litigation. In 2018, Republican Mia Love filed suit to stop Salt Lake County from counting ballots so her campaign could challenge signatures on mail-in ballots. That suit was tossed and Love ended up losing to McAdams by 694 votes.

Ranney said he thought the purpose of the fundraising ask was “raising money in case of a potential recount,” given the close nature of the race, but said he would need to check with the campaign’s fundraising director for more information.

Candidates can request a recount in a race if the margin is less than 0.25% of the total ballots cast, at government cost.