Recount chaos upends Sandy mayor’s race

The City Council wants a recount in the incredibly close election. An error in state law says there can’t be one.

Monica Zoltanski, left, and Jim Bennett, the two leaders in the Sandy mayor’s race.

The razor-thin mayoral election in Sandy remains up in the air after the City Council voted late Thursday night not to certify the election results, which gave Monica Zoltanski a 21-vote win over Jim Bennett.

At issue is how recounts are handled in ranked choice elections.

On Wednesday, veteran Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen invited both campaigns to observe what they thought would be a recount of the election. Instead, Swensen did a retabulation of the results, which consisted of simply rerunning the ranked choice process instead of counting the ballots. Unsurprisingly, the results did not change.

After more than two hours of debate Thursday night, the council ultimately voted 6-1 to send the results back to Swensen, asking her to perform a full recount of the ballots. Zoltanski, who is on the council, recused herself from any decision on certifying the election results but did vote in favor of asking for a recount.

Bennett said he agreed with the council’s decision.

“This is the only way,” he said, “to give voters full confidence in the election results.”

Bennett says he has no illusions that the results might change with a recount, but it is the correct move.

“Two weeks ago, I called her [Zoltanski] and congratulated her on the victory, and I have not taken that back,” Bennett said. “I don’t see a recount as a sneaky vehicle to get me in the mayor’s seat.”

Zoltanski did not respond to a request for comment, but she did write a lengthy post on Facebook.

“Out of respect for every resident who took time to exercise their solemn right to vote, if a second recount would satisfy the council, then let it be done, and quickly,” she wrote. “...Please remain patient and allow this process to play out. In the end, I know it is more important we show our residents they can trust our election results. Their future mayor respects the fairness and accuracy of our election process above her own interests.”

It is unclear if a recount is legally permitted.

Swensen says state law exempts ranked choice elections explicitly from the standard procedure for a recount.

”Our attorney says the law doesn’t allow for a recount for ranked choice voting elections,” Swensen said. “There’s nothing allowing a candidate or the City Council to even ask for one. If we thought we could have done it, we would have.”

Swensen says she drew attention to this conflict months ago.

“There is no mention of which candidate could request it,” Swensen added, “the timeline in which they could request, or the process for conducting a recount in the traditional manner.”

The race also is not close enough to trigger an automatic recount.

The state uses a complicated and byzantine formula to set the recount threshold for ranked choice elections. The total number of ballots counted in the final round (17,219) is multiplied by 0.11% for this particular race. That comes out to 18.94, or 19 rounded up. Zoltanski’s winning margin was 21, two more than what the law says can result in an automatic recount.

Swensen says her office will confer with legal counsel to decide what to do with Sandy’s request for a recount.

“Anything we do,” she said, “will have to be decided within the parameters of state law.”

Sandy’s City Council has scheduled another special meeting Monday.