Utah House committee rejects baseless claims of election fraud; soundly defeats bill to end universal vote by mail

Backers of HB371 failed to convince lawmakers that an overhaul of Utah’s elections was needed.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, presents HB371 to the House Government Operations Committee in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.

The “stop the steal” conspiracy theory ran into reality as a bill to end Utah’s universal mail-in balloting went down in flames during a House committee meeting on Wednesday evening.

Hundreds of Utahns who championed former President Donald Trump’s baseless claim that the 2020 election was fraudulent packed into several rooms at the Capitol in support of HB371 from Rep. Phil Lyman. They left disappointed as the committee voted 7-3 to kill Lyman’s bill.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attendees of the hearing for HB371 in the committee room at the House building at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Feb. 23, 2022.

Lyman’s massive bill, more than 2,000 lines, was a radical overhaul of Utah’s elections and contained several ideas that have popped up in the wake of Trump’s 2020 loss. Utah’s universal mail-in balloting would be replaced with same-day, in-person voting counted by hand. Most absentee balloting would be eliminated except under certain circumstances. Registering to vote would be more difficult. There is also a provision for an independent audit of the election results.

Lyman said he was prompted to push for the election overhaul because people don’t trust election results.

“Every single vote should count,” Lyman said. “In Utah, we have a crisis of confidence in our elections.”

Lyman kept returning to his belief that an outside audit is crucial to restoring the lost election confidence. Legislative leaders authorized an audit of the state’s election systems in December, which removed some of the urgency behind Lyman’s push.

Much of the rationale behind arguments for overhauling Utah’s elections was flimsy and relied on anecdotes.

For instance, several people who spoke in support of the bill claimed they had received multiple ballots in the mail or ballots for people who did not live there. One person claimed his friend attempted to vote only to be told they had already cast a ballot.

“We have an attorney general that is charged with reviewing if there are any issues, problems or fraud on a localized or widespread basis and making sure we bring people to justice. What has been the outcome of those investigations in the last few elections?” Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, asked.

“I don’t know what the Attorney General has investigated or if he’s investigated things. On a county level, every once in a while, they will flag somebody for voting twice or something like that,” Lyman said.

There are connections between Wednesday’s hearing and the election fraud conspiracy movement. Former Rep. Steve Christiansen, who resigned suddenly in October, was an observer at the sham audit conducted by the “Cyber Ninjas” in Arizona. In August, both Christiansen and Lyman attended My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell’s cybersecurity summit.

Teena Horlacher, who offered public testimony, was in Washington D.C. when the attack on the U.S. Capitol occurred on Jan 6. Her daughter, Olivia Dawn, is the current secretary of the Utah GOP.

Committee members worried that ending universal vote by mail would disenfranchise Utahns who might have difficulty making it to a polling place on Election Day.

Ultimately, Lyman could not convince his colleagues of the need for wholesale change.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there. I really think it’s time we get down to what’s real and what’s not real. I’m not convinced we have widespread fraud in the state of Utah,” Rep. Cory Malloy, R-Lehi, said.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chair president Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi Wednesday, at the hearing for HB371 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Feb. 23, 2022.

There’s no evidence there was much public support for ending default vote-by-mail in Utah. Backers of a proposed ballot initiative aiming to do much of what was in Lyman’s bill didn’t come close to qualifying for November’s election. They needed nearly 138,000 signatures. They submitted about 28,000.

Seemingly sensing defeat, Lyman said the issue would continue even after the 2022 session.

“It’s a good discussion to have, and I suspect it will continue,” Lyman said.