At Gov. Cox’s request, lawmaker shelves bill to strip Utah election oversight from lieutenant governor’s office

Ogden Republican’s proposal would create an independent election office.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, at a news conference at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.

A proposal to take oversight of elections in Utah away from the lieutenant governor, putting that responsibility in the hands of an independent entity, is on hold after pushback from other top elected officials, including Gov. Spencer Cox.

“There is more work to do, and that’s what we agreed to,” Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, said Wednesday afternoon of his conversations with Cox about the legislation.

The Ogden Republican’s HB490 would remove election oversight and administration from the lieutenant governor’s office.

Wilcox said that having an elected official overseeing elections in the state creates the perception that politics could corrupt the process — a perception he aims to eliminate.

“This is about the long-term structure; what should it look like going into the future? Should one person carry that particular burden that, frankly, belongs to all of us?” Wilcox said. “I’m hoping that this will address that perception issue.”

Wilcox pointed to the 2022 gubernatorial election in Arizona, which former Secretary of State Democrat Katie Hobbs won. The losing candidate, Republican Kari Lake, has alleged, without evidence, that her loss resulted from fraud.

“Whether that’s reality or not,” Wilcox said, “there’s a sizable population in that state that believes it was a fraudulent election.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his 2024 State of the State address at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. Cox has asked that an election oversight bill be put on ice and studied further.

When then-Lt. Gov. Cox ran for governor in 2020, he recused himself from adjudicating any issues in that race by appointing former Lt. Gov. Gayle McKeachnie as a neutral third party. Cox did not step away from his other election-related duties.

Cox is seeking reelection this year. A spokesperson for his running mate, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, said she would take similar action to implement an independent process for dealing with issues related to the gubernatorial election.

Wilcox’s proposal would eliminate that conflict by tearing the state election office away from the executive branch, establishing it as an independent entity. The elections director would be appointed by a committee consisting of the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state auditor, state treasurer, Utah Senate president and Utah House speaker.

On Wednesday afternoon, though, Wilcox abruptly announced that he was dropping the bill less than 24 hours after it had been made public. Instead, he plans to revisit the issue during legislative interim meetings that will happen after the session.

“In the last day or so,” the lawmaker said, “I’ve agreed not to run it this year and to work on this through interim.”

Cox’s office did not immediately respond Wednesday to questions about why he requested Wilcox not move ahead with the measure. Wilcox said there were others who also requested he discard the bill but declined to name them.

The decision to abandon the measure comes despite Wilcox’s belief there is an appetite among lawmakers to tackle the issue this session.

Even if the legislation had moved forward, it would not have taken effect until after the upcoming 2024 election.