Lawmakers want to audit Utah’s elections, but not to examine whether the results are accurate

Rep. Mike Schultz’s HB269 was unanimously approved by a House committee on Tuesday.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, is greeted by Brian McKenzie, the Davis County Clerk, before Schultz prepares to present his first substitute HB269 before the House Government Operations Committee in the House Building, Jan. 31, 2023.

For nearly two years, believers in Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud have been clamoring for an audit of elections in the Beehive State. Under a bill winding its way through the Utah Legislature, that may happen — just not entirely in the way they want.

The House Government Operations Committee unanimously approved HB269 on Tuesday afternoon, which mandates a performance audit of Utah’s elections in even-numbered years. Legislative auditors are tasked to review almost every aspect of the primary and general elections, from candidate selection to counting ballots.

The bill from House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, springboards from a year-long probe of Utah’s elections instigated by Schultz in late 2021. He explained he was motivated not by unfounded fraud claims but by a desire to build confidence in Utah’s elections.

“Even though that was well after the 2020 election, everyone thought it was partisan and I was questioning the results of that election. I can’t count how many reporters asked if this was about Trump. That was ridiculous,” Schultz said.

That audit did not find any evidence of fraud but highlighted some areas for improvement. Auditors found a patchwork of election procedures that vary from county to county across the state, which includes how often voter registration records are updated and procedures for counting ballots.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, after presenting his first substitute HB269 before the House Government Operations Committee in the House Building, Jan. 31, 2023.

Absent from the bill is a mechanism for verifying the accuracy of election results. State law requires county clerks to conduct a post-election audit to determine whether vote-counting machines are operating correctly. Legislative auditors recommended a pilot program to audit a certain percentage of ballots after the election to help ensure the results are accurate.

That absence is notable after the legislative audit discovered slight discrepancies between the number of voters and the number of ballots cast in the 2022 primary elections. Auditors concluded the difference, encompassing fewer than 2,000 ballots statewide, was likely due to clerical errors or how counties reconcile ballots during the counting process.

Schultz’s bill was met with broad support during Tuesday’s committee hearing. Ryan Cowley, Utah’s Director of Elections, welcomed increased scrutiny on how the state conducts voting.

“We truly have nothing to hide in Utah. Our elections are some of the best in the country. This gives us a good framework to work with,” Cowley said.

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The legislation would also give broad discretion to legislative auditors, including the ability to unseal ballots for a limited time following an election. Currently, Utah law says all election materials must be sealed after an election is certified, then destroyed after 22 months.

Instead of having the Legislature audit Utah’s elections, Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, wants to farm that task out to an independent auditor.

Among other things, Lyman’s HB155 would require an independent audit of Utah’s elections for president, U.S. Senate, Congress and governor. The proposal still is waiting for a committee hearing.

Lyman has been one of the loudest voices in the Capitol to allege issues with the state’s elections. Last year his bill to eliminate Utah’s vote-by-mail system was killed by a House committee. In June, Lyman spoke at a Colorado election conspiracy theory event headlined by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.

Lyman and former Utah lawmaker Steve Christiansen attended an August 2021 cyber symposium in South Dakota put on by My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell. That fall, both also spoke about election fraud at a conspiracy-fueled conference in Salt Lake City.