Elections audits and restrictions for changing parties: Here’s how voting systems will change in Utah.

During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers introduced more than three dozen different changes to Utah’s elections systems, but only 13 will see the governor’s desk.

Utah lawmakers introduced 36 bills dealing with elections during the 2023 legislative session, passing 13. Additionally, there were seven proposed amendments to the Utah Constitution, with three that will make it to the 2024 ballot.

Most of the election-related bills approved by lawmakers are administrative. For example, HB37 from Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, standardizes signature verification procedures for ballots and how to contact voters when a problem with their signature needs rectifying.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, pushed SB63, which changes the conditions under which political parties can replace candidates on the ballot. Previously, candidates could only be replaced if they died, were disqualified or resigned due to a physical or mental disability. The change was prompted by the controversy surrounding former Rep. Joel Ferry remaining on the ballot after he resigned from the Legislature and was appointed to head up the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Restrictions on voters

A pair of bills that made their way to the governor’s desk put restrictions on when voters who’ve recently changed their party affiliation can participate in partisan primary elections. These changes primarily impact voters who register as Republicans, as Utah GOP primary elections are “closed,” meaning only registered party members can cast a ballot.

Under HB365 from Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, makes it so any voter who changes party affiliation on or after April 1 of an election year won’t be able to cast a ballot in that year’s primary election. A second bill, HB69 from Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven, did the same thing but only applied to unaffiliated voters. Since both passed, Teuscher’s bill overrides Musselman’s.

Last year, lawmakers passed legislation to crack down on voters from one party changing their registration to vote in another party’s primary elections, also known as “party raiding.” That was a response to the 2020 GOP gubernatorial primary, which saw nearly 100,000 Utah voters register as Republicans before the election.

Election audits

This year lawmakers gave the green light to regular audits of Utah’s elections — with a big catch.

A legislative audit of the state’s elections found no evidence of fraud but detailed several areas needing improvement, including updating voter rolls and ballot counting procedures. House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, passed legislation to implement many recommendations through regular performance audits of the state’s elections.

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

However, those audits don’t include any mechanism to verify the results of the elections are accurate. Rep. Phil Lyman’s HB155, which instituted an independent audit of election results, passed the House but never reached the Senate floor for a vote.

What didn’t pass

The more controversial proposed changes to elections died on the vine this year.

The annual attempt by lawmakers to weaken the SB54 compromise, which allows candidates to qualify for the primary election ballot through signature gathering, manifested this year in HB393.

The proposal, sponsored by Teuscher, sought to automatically give the party nomination to any candidate that receives 70% support at a party convention, eliminating any signature-gathering candidates from the race. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate without a vote. A watered-down version that would have highlighted a convention-winning candidate on the primary ballot also failed to see the light of day before the session’s end.

Nearly two dozen Utah cities participated in a pilot program allowing ranked-choice voting for municipal elections in 2021. Freshman Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, sought to send that program to the trash heap, but her HB171 was held by a House committee.

A proposal to end Utah’s universal vote-by-mail program from Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, was introduced late in the session and died without a committee hearing. A similar bill from Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, would have allowed county election officers to choose whether to conduct an election in person or by mail, but was never assigned to a committee.

Likewise, bills to implement a runoff in primary elections where no candidate gets a majority and to change or lower the number of signatures candidates need to qualify for the primary election ballot failed to pass.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, as the House Judiciary Committee meets in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, proposed allowing cities and towns to require residents to vote in municipal elections and impose a fine if they did not have a valid reason for not voting. HB452 died after not being assigned to a committee.

Freshman Rep. Jason Kyle, R-Huntsville, was behind a bill to make it harder for ballot initiatives that raised taxes to win approval at the ballot box. His HB422 aimed to ensure such ballot measures have 60% of voters’ support, instead of a simple majority. Enacting that higher threshold required changing Utah’s Constitution, which Kyle also sponsored, although both measures failed to pass.

Constitutional changes

Also this year, the Legislature approved three potential changes to Utah’s Constitution, which will be on voters’ ballots in 2024.

The most prominent and complicated change involves how income taxes fund the state budget. Now, income tax revenue can only fund public and higher education and some social services. Lawmakers are asking voters to let them use that money for other parts of the budget after meeting certain goals for public education funding. If voters give thumbs up to the change, the state portion of the sales tax on food will be eliminated.

The other constitutional changes on the ballot would block state and local governments from imposing taxes on the transfer of real estate and specify how county sheriffs are elected.

The constitutional changes that failed to make the ballot included allowing the Legislature to revive a civil case for child sexual abuse after the statute of limitations had expired and adding the right to privacy to the list of inherent and inalienable rights currently listed in the state constitution.

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