Editor’s note • This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s voter guide for the 2022 midterm elections. You can find all the stories in both English and Spanish here.
Para leer este artículo en español, haz clic aquí.
Salt Lake County voters will elect their next county clerk this fall, replacing a 32-year career civil servant who championed voting rights for Utahns.
Democrat and longtime county clerk Sherrie Swenson, who has served eight consecutive terms as the county’s top election official, will retire at the end of the year. Vying to replace Swenson are Democrat Lannie Chapman and Republican Goud Maragani.
Political party isn’t the only division between candidates.
In public, Maragani, a compliance lawyer for technology company Lucid, is straightforward about the 2020 election — “Joe Biden won the election. I think that’s clear. I think (Donald) Trump filed a bunch of cases, but he came up short. He didn’t win it.”
But posts made my Maragani on social media show that the GOP candidate thinks that Democrats “cheat” and the 2020 election was stolen. In other posts, he called Democrats “commies” and “Marxists” and advocated for stopping the prosecutions of those arrested for participating Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. As Election Day gets closer, and after securing the GOP nomination, Maragani has begun to walk back some of these allegations.
Chapman, currently the chief deputy clerk for Salt Lake County, does not hesitate to say Democrat Joe Biden won the 2020 election, and that the vote was free and fair.
“My team is so passionate about elections, and they work so hard to make sure that it gets done and gets done correctly. For anyone to question that just undermines the system,” Chapman said.
Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, the state’s top election official, has said that there is no evidence of election fraud in Utah’s 2020 elections, including with mail-in ballots.
Because of several layers of security used in Utah’s election, Henderson told The Tribune this summer, “Our mail-in ballots, I think, are actually probably one of the most secure ways that we could be administering an election.”
GOP alleges voter discrepancies
Earlier this year, Maragani chaired the Salt Lake County Republican Party’s “Election Integrity Committee,” which reviewed the county’s election processes. In May, the committee released a report with several suggestions for elections officials, legislators and voters. In that report is the claim that between 14,000 and 32,000 ballots from the 2020 election cannot allegedly be accounted for by county officials.
“It raises questions. As a county clerk, you have to be able to reconcile your election data to give voters faith in how you’re running the election system,” Maragani said.
A similar allegation was a driving factor behind former GOP state Rep. Steve Christiansen’s push for a full audit of the 2020 election in Utah. The Republican-led Utah Legislature ultimately dismissed the allegations and the call for an audit never left the committee during this year’s legislative session.
The state classifies voter records in three ways: When Utahns register to vote or update their information, they can choose to make their information public, which can be accessed by anyone, or to keep their information private — although political parties and candidates can get access for campaign purposes. Records marked as “withheld” cannot be made public.
According to the Salt Lake County GOP’s report, 311,158 voters classified as “public” cast ballots on Election Day 2020. Subtracting that number from the 549,882 votes from the final county tally leaves 238,724 ballots, concluding that thousands of ballots came from voters with private or withheld information.
“To get the turnout that they show overall, you have to get 117 percent among private and withheld voters,” Maragani alleges.
That calculation relies on the number of ballots cast on November 3, 2020. However, due to mail-in and provisional ballots, votes continued to flow into election offices for two weeks after Election Day. For example, the hotly contested U.S. House race between Democrat Ben McAdams and Republican Burgess Owens wasn’t decided until Nov. 16.
“Anybody who oversees elections in Utah knows we have a two-week canvass period. During those two weeks, we’re not just eating bonbons and sitting on our hands. We’re processing ballots. We had over 100,000 ballots drop on Election Day 2020,” Chapman said.
The GOP’s conclusion also compares the final vote tally from 2020 to a list of public and private voter records compiled eight months after the election. Utah’s voter registration lists are constantly being updated. People move in or out. Newly eligible Utahns register to vote while others who die fall off the rolls.
“It’s a living, breathing thing. You’re not going to have the same numbers. What they haven’t received is what the active voter registration looked like on the day of the final canvass,” Chapman says.
She adds that her office has explained to Maragani why the numbers don’t add up several times.
“I don’t think the point is to come up with an answer because we’ve given him the answers. We’ve shown him everything. It just doesn’t fit with his narrative,” Chapman said.
According to emails obtained by The Tribune through a public records request, Maragani was given a list showing 342,213 Salt Lake County voters with public records in September 2021, prompting him to ask about the discrepancy with the Election Day 2020 data and voter registration numbers.
“There is no discrepancy. The data we sent is captured from our current voter list. Therefore anyone who has since died, moved or otherwise been inactivated since November would be excluded from these results, as this list only includes our current active registered voters,” Michelle Blue, director of the Salt Lake County Clerk’s office, replied on Aug 2, 2021.
Future Salt Lake County elections
The emails show Maragani was particularly focused on the process of transporting ballots from drop boxes across the county to where the counting takes place. He asked several questions about how the teams are selected, how they’re tracked and how the bags containing ballots are secured.
He also suggests that the Salt Lake County Clerk’s office’s procedures for transporting ballots leave them vulnerable to being hijacked, unsealed and replaced with votes for another candidate.
During his campaign, Maragani has suggested implementing an elaborate procedure that involves assigning a Republican and a Democrat to ride along with the teams that collect ballots and using an app to mark when the ballots are picked up and delivered to the counting facility. He also wants to weigh ballots when they’re picked up and checked in to see if there are any discrepancies and release that data to the public.
Other policies Maragani has championed, like publishing images of cast ballots online, would break state law, according to elections officials.
Chapman says what Maragani suggests is unworkable, especially the plan to weigh ballot bags when they’re picked up, which would require fitting vehicles with a heavyweight scale.
“People put things other than ballots in these drop boxes. We’ve gotten utility bills. Someone even dropped an iPad into a drop box once,” Chapman said.
Chapman, who served as a deputy district attorney for Salt Lake County before moving to the Clerk’s office, is also focused on the issue of election integrity, but not in the same way that Maragani might be. For instance, she’s a firm believer in vote by mail.
“I have been voting by mail since 2012 when my oldest daughter was one year old. I knew I couldn’t make it to the polls to make sure I had my voice heard in my community. It’s convenient and allows me time to look up the candidates and answer my questions,” Chapman said.
Leading up to the election, Maragani frequently found himself in the company of election deniers and conspiracy theorists but explained those associations as part of his campaign outreach to any group that would listen to his message.
In March, he spoke at an election fraud conspiracy event featuring several prominent fringe figures in both Utah and national election denier circles.
“I think my proposals will appeal to Republicans, Democrats and Unaffiliated voters. I plan to spend my time earning as many of their votes as possible,” Maragani responded when asked why he was attending the event.
In May, he was part of a panel discussion before a screening of Dinesh D’Souza’s movie “2000 Mules,” which claims without evidence that nonprofits paid volunteers to traffic ballots to drop boxes in states won by Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
In a video of that discussion, Maragani endorsed the movie, saying it illustrated many of the issues he highlighted during his campaign. When asked by The Tribune whether he thought “2000 Mules” was truthful, Maragani was noncommittal.
“It was interesting. From my perspective, I just like to hear different information. The movie is just informative. I can’t tell you if it’s factual or not,” Maragani says now.
Chapman bristles at any hint that election results, especially those overseen by the Salt Lake County Clerk, might be tainted or fraudulent.
“So many of the things we do in the election field, in the Clerk’s office, are available for the public to watch. There’s transparency everywhere. The fact that he’s questioning undermines the system. He knows better,” Chapman said.
When the candidates were asked if they would accept the election results if they lost, Maragani did not commit to honoring the outcome.
“If the election is free, fair and accurate, my answer is yes. If there are glaring issues and questions regarding the results, the calculations, etc., I will question the results and work through the legal process to resolve the questions,” Maragani said, noting he would accept the results only after those issues are resolved.
On the other hand, Chapman was much more deliberate when asked the same question.
“Absolutely,” she responded.