Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson erred by allowing Celeste Maloy on the congressional ballot, lawmakers say

In a letter published Monday, the legislative leaders said the only remaining challenge to Maloy’s candidacy in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District special election could be done in the court.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson makes a comment during a news conference, on the final day of the legislative session, on Friday, March 3, 2023. Legislative leaders suggested Monday, July 3, 2023, that Henderson erred by allowing Celeste Maloy on the ballot for this fall's special congressional election.

Legislative leaders are at odds with Republican Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson over the controversy surrounding Utah’s 2nd Congressional District special election. Henderson, who oversees elections for the state, has brushed off any suggestion that Celeste Maloy, who won the vote of GOP delegates last month, was ineligible when she filed to run. Top lawmakers suggested Monday that Henderson erred by allowing Maloy on the ballot.

In a letter released Monday afternoon, lawmakers said legislative staff met with state elections officials to understand the controversy surrounding Maloy’s candidacy. It also laid out the facts and timeline of Maloy’s candidacy, concluding it’s likely she was not a registered Republican when she filed for office.

“The lieutenant governor is obligated to ‘enforce compliance by election officers with all legal requirements relating to elections, including… state law relating to elections,’” the letter reads.

In May, Rep. Chris Stewart announced he was resigning from Congress due to his wife’s ongoing health concerns. Maloy triumphed over nearly a dozen other Republicans in the special GOP convention to pick a nominee to replace Stewart. Shortly after she edged out former House Speaker Greg Hughes, questions about her eligibility to run started.

Maloy was not a registered Republican voter when she filed as a candidate. She changed her address to Virginia in 2019 when she took a job in Congressman Chris Stewart’s office and did not vote in the 2020 and 2022 elections. She re-registered to vote in Utah after the filing deadline had closed.

On Friday evening, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson posted a lengthy statement on Twitter that Maloy had “satisfied all legal requirements and constitutional qualifications and that she properly filed for office.”

“Being a registered voter is not a qualification for the office of U.S. House of Representatives. When the matter was discovered upon a routine check by a member of my staff, Ms. Maloy was notified of her registration status as a courtesy,” Henderson’s statement read.

While it’s true that there is no federal requirement that candidates be registered voters when they run for Congress, Utah law blocks a person from seeking the nomination of a political party if they are not a member.

“Utah Code prohibits an individual from filing a declaration of candidacy for a registered political party of which the individual is not a member, unless the party’s bylaws permit otherwise,” the letter from the Legislature says. “The Utah Republican Party recognizes this in Article 1 of its constitution, which reads, ‘[p]arty membership is open to any resident of the State of Utah who registers to vote as a Republican and complies with the Utah Republican Party Constitution and Bylaws ...’”

Lawmakers step in

Henderson’s Friday statement came after House and Senate Republican leaders asked legislative auditors to try and untangle the mess.

The Tribune obtained an email by House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, sent to House Republicans on Friday. In that message, he says House and Senate leadership requested that legislative auditors meet with the state elections office to untangle Maloy’s eligibility issues.

“Many rumors have been circulating, many of which have been clarified. A main concern that still exists is if Maloy was eligible for candidacy under Utah Code § 20A-9-201(1), which requires an individual to be a member of the political party for which the individual files a declaration of candidacy,” Schultz wrote.

The Utah Republican Party constitution says membership is “open to any resident of the State of Utah who registers to vote as a Republican.”

Henderson claimed Friday Maloy’s after-the-fact registration fix was “not grounds for rejecting the candidate filing.” State law does not allow candidates to update filings after the deadline. Henderson’s office would not elaborate on how Maloy could be considered a registered Republican at the time of filing if she was not considered a registered voter.

On Monday, Schultz told The Tribune, “Ensuring the integrity of elections is paramount to a thriving democracy and it is our responsibility to provide complete transparency to the delegates, voters, and people of Utah”

“The lieutenant governor also has a duty to review declarations of candidacy to verify each candidate’s eligibility under state and federal law. That did not happen in this case. Contrary to legislative intent, Ms. Maloy’s declaration of candidacy was reviewed only for compliance with federal requirements. However, the lieutenant governor is obligated to “enforce compliance by election officers with all legal requirements relating to elections, including … state law relating to elections,’” he said.

Who was notified?

Henderson said Friday that her office had alerted Maloy to the problems with her voter registration, calling it “a courtesy.”

Henderson did not extend that courtesy to GOP officials.

GOP Chairman Rob Axson said Monday in a text message to The Tribune that he was unaware of any issue with Maloy’s voter registration status until the day after she won the convention vote. That silence from state officials was unusual.

“During the one election cycle I went through as vice chair (2020), I believe we were notified when there were problems with a filing under the law,” Axson said.

Henderson’s office did not respond to questions about why state party officials were not notified.

2017 redux

A similar situation played out during the 2017 special congressional election following the surprise resignation of former Congressman Jason Chaffetz.

Political newcomer Tanner Ainge was not registered to vote when he filed to run in that race. Ainge, who was registered in Illinois, registered to vote in Utah the day after his campaign submitted enough signatures to qualify for the Republican primary ballot. Ainge’s campaign brushed off the situation as “an oversight.”

Ainge was not disqualified from the ballot because no objections to his candidacy were filed within five days of his filing for office.

It may take the courts to ultimately decide whether Maloy’s status as a voter should have disqualified her from the ballot. Axson confirmed that he plans to forward Maloy’s name for inclusion on the ballot before Wednesday’s deadline.

Republicans Becky Edwards and Bruce Hough are aiming to join Maloy on the September primary ballot via Utah’s signature-gathering path. Edwards submitted her signatures last week and is waiting for elections officials to verify that she met the required 7,000 names. A spokesperson for Bruce Hough’s campaign tell said they plan to submit enough signatures prior to the deadline on Wednesday.

Lawmakers reached the conclusion Monday that only the courts could now intervene in Maloy’s candidacy.

“The statute for the regular general election provides a deadline that has already passed to challenge a declaration of candidacy. That deadline was not adjusted in the proclamation calling the CD2 election. Thus, it appears that there is no immediate process to challenge Ms. Maloy’s declaration of candidacy except by seeking recourse through the courts,” their letter reads.