Labor Day and Thanksgiving traditionally mean family get-togethers and holiday celebrations. This year, add a congressional election to the list.
Utahns will vote in a special election to replace outgoing 2nd Congression District Rep. Cris Stewart, who announced he was leaving Congress late last month due to his wife’s ongoing health concerns.
The Utah Legislature approved a condensed special election timeline and nearly $2.5 million dollars to fund that election during a special legislative session on Wednesday afternoon. Without changing the election dates, Stewart’s seat could remain empty until next spring. The new calendar reduces that vacancy to just over 60 days.
The new timeline set forward in HB2001 pushes Utah’s 2023 municipal primary election back three weeks from Aug. 15 to the day after Labor Day on Sept. 5. November’s general election will also be postponed by two weeks, moving from Nov. 7 to the 21st, two days before Thanksgiving.
Rep. Cal Musselman, R-West Haven, said the date change was necessary for several reasons, primarily to minimize the time that the 2nd District seat is vacant.
“The idea is to move them as little as possible,” Musselman, who sponsored the bill, said during a committee hearing on the bill Wednesday morning. “We want to create a familiar process that minimizes the time period in which voters are unrepresented that also minimizes voter fatigue and confusion.”
Lawmakers swiftly approved the legislation on Wednesday afternoon with little discussion. The bill now awaits Gov. Spencer Cox’s signature. Cox is currently overseas in Morocco, which will impact when he signs the bill into law.
To minimize the delay, a spokesperson for the governor’s office tells The Salt Lake Tribune that a staffer will board a plane to “hand-deliver” the bill to Cox for his signature. Cox’s office explains the staffer’s international travel was previously scheduled as part of an upcoming trade mission, so it made sense to add transporting the legislation to his responsibilities.
Cox’s office was unable to provide a timeline for when he would sign the bill, but once it is, voters in the 2nd District will be prohibited from changing their party affiliation.
There is already a process for conducting a special election spelled out in Utah law, which specifies that special primary and general elections be held in conjunction with four existing election dates, unless the Legislature approves a change. Under the current system, the 2nd District primary would have been pushed to Nov. 7, with the special general waiting until either March or June of 2024.
Lawmakers put the process in place following the 2017 special election in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District. However, the timing of Stewart’s resignation shone a bright spotlight on a flaw in current law, prompting the rush to move the dates.
Had lawmakers not decided to move this year’s dates, it would have created a scenario where candidates would be campaigning for a special election at the same time as other candidates were filing to run in 2024.
“If we were moving into next year, imagine the mess we would have,” Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said Wednesday. “You’d have voter confusion. It would be a mess to move this special election into next year in the middle of another election cycle.”
Conducting a special election and moving the dates is not cheap. The proposed legislation appropriates $2.05 million from the state to reimburse counties for the two unexpected elections. There’s another $400,000 for Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson’s office to publicize the election to 2nd District voters.
House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said not moving the election dates would have cost the state much more.
“If we did not piggyback with the municipal elections, the cost would be significantly higher, if not double. We’re very fortunate it worked out the way it did to actually reduce the cost to the state,” Schultz said.
Who will replace Rep. Stewart?
The news of Stewart’s resignation set off an electoral land rush of candidates hoping to win a rare open seat in Congress. At least a dozen Republicans have jumped into the race, the same number in the last three congressional elections without an incumbent.
Those candidates face a significantly shortened timeline ahead of the primary election.
Candidate filing, which opened last week, ended at Wednesday at 5 pm. Signature-gathering candidates aiming to reach the primary ballot have a maximum of 27 days to collect the required 7,000 names. Three candidates attempted to gather signatures for the 2017 special election following Jason Chaffetz’s resignation. Only two, Tanner Ainge and John Curtis, met that threshold.
Candidates who forego the signature path will be vying to claim just one ticket to the primary election. Utah Republican Party delegates meet next Saturday in Delta, Utah, to send one candidate to the primary ballot.
There could be a primary for the Democratic nomination, as state Sen. Kathleen Riebe, Guy Warner and Archie A. Williams III are vying to be the party standard bearer.
Candidates who collect enough signatures or survive the delegate vote will have to hit the ground running, with a little over two months to campaign ahead of the Sept. 5 primary election. Candidates may have to compete for attention with summer vacations and back-to-school preparations.
Once the nominees are decided, it’s a 77-day sprint to the Nov. 21 special election.
Republicans outnumber Democrats in the 2nd District by more than 3 to 1. It stands to reason that the eventual winner of the GOP primary will be an overwhelming favorite in November.
Republican primary elections are “closed,” meaning only registered Republicans can cast a ballot. The ability of voters to register as Republicans to vote in the special CD2 primary is severely limited. Once Gov. Spencer Cox signs the special election bill, party swaps won’t take effect until after the primary election.
Democrats have scheduled a virtual nominating convention on June 28 at 6 p.m.
The issue of limiting party switching was a sensitive subject among some of the Republican members of the Government Operations Committee during the only public hearing on the legislation Wednesday morning.
“I want to make this absolutely clear if you’re unaffiliated, you can affiliate with any party you want,” Musselman said, clearly frustrated. “There are some constraints on switching parties if you’ve already affiliated.”
So-called “party raiding,” wherein voters from one party attempt to skew the results of another party’s primary election, first became an issue during the 2020 GOP gubernatorial primary. Arguing the eventual Republican nominee would likely be elected to the job, Democrats were urged to register as Republicans so they could have a say in the outcome. Studies showed those efforts had minimal impact, but the GOP supermajority in the Legislature has taken several steps to slam the door on the practice.
There’s one other minor change for voters who use the state’s vote-by-mail system. Ballots must be postmarked by election day instead of the day before.