Special election to replace Rep. Stewart pushes Utah’s 2023 city elections back to Nov. 21

Gov. Spencer Cox is calling the Legislature back into a special session next week to fund the 2nd Congressional District special election and iron out the legal details of replacing Congressman Chris Stewart.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Chris Stewart at the Utah Republican Party election night party at the Hyatt Regency in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. A special election to replace Stewart, who is leaving Congress is September, will push Utah's city and town election back several weeks.

Utah cities and towns will have to push their municipal elections back a couple of weeks as lawmakers will postpone the elections in order to replace outgoing Rep. Chris Stewart in Congress as soon as they legally can.

It will be the first time in at least the last several decades, and perhaps in Utah history, that a general election will not be held on the first Tuesday in November.

In a pair of proclamations issued Wednesday evening, Gov. Spencer Cox announced a special election to replace Stewart, while also calling the Legislature into a special session to fund the special election to replace Stewart and to iron out the legal details of that race. That special session will be held on June 14, at 4 p.m.

The 2nd Congressional District special primary election will be on Sept. 5, with the general election on Nov. 21, according to the governor’s office. Utah cities and towns hosting elections this fall will also hold those races on Nov. 21, not on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

“This timeline will ensure a smooth and efficient transition with minimal disruption to our electoral process. We understand these are unusual circumstances and appreciate the efforts of our municipalities and county clerks in accommodating this election schedule,” Cox said in a new release.

[READ: Here’s who could replace Rep. Chris Stewart in Congress]

The state’s top elections official, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, said the timeline is a sensible solution. “We’ve balanced urgency with election security and accuracy,” she said in a statement.

“It’s imperative Utah continues to have full representation in Washington, D.C. With Congressman Stewart resigning, it only makes sense to fill the position as quickly as possible,” Utah Senate President Stuart Adams wrote on Twitter Wednesday night. “The special election ensures we can do just that.

Stewart officially submitted a brief, irrevocable letter of resignation — effective Sept. 15 — to Gov. Spencer Cox on Tuesday, Cox’s office confirmed.

“It has been one of the great honors of my life to serve the good people of Utah in Congress,” Stewart wrote. “My family and I have been very blessed by this experience.”

The special election timeline problem arose because, under the statutory timeframes in both state and federal law, there is not enough time for candidate filing, signature gathering, and party nominating conventions before the currently scheduled municipal primary elections in August.

Initially, the idea was to hold the general elections on Dec. 5, but after House and Senate Republicans met Wednesday morning to discuss how to solve the time crunch, there was a feeling that they could hold the general elections on Nov. 21, according to sources familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity.

There is a sense of urgency to fill the seat, since nationally Republicans only hold a 222-212 majority in the House (with one Democratic vacancy) — a margin that will shrink even more once Stewart leaves the body this fall.

Stewart announced last month that he planned to resign from the U.S. House, citing undisclosed health issues his wife was facing. Even if political parties had opened the candidate filing period before Stewart’s formal resignation had been submitted, there would not be enough time to clear all the hurdles before the August primaries.

Another potential option that was considered — and one that could have caused significant political blowback — would have been to eliminate the signature path to the ballot and let the party delegates choose the primary contenders at their respective nominating conventions.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

That was an avenue that several legislators advocated for the last time there was a congressional vacancy, after then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz resigned from the House in 2017. Then-Gov. Gary Herbert blocked that idea by refusing to convene a special session to change the law, prompting talk that lawmakers would sue the governor, although they did not follow through on the threat.

Signature gathering by candidates has been legal in Utah since 2014, although GOP lawmakers have looked to kill that as an option.

Delegates chose former state Rep. Chris Herrod at that convention, but Herrod was trounced by then-Provo Mayor John Curtis, who had gathered signatures, in the primary.

The other alternative to replace Stewart would have been to leave the congressional seat vacant until March 2024 and hold the special election in conjunction with the state’s presidential primaries — something lawmakers appear to be avoiding.

Changing the date will impact elections statewide, even though three-fourths of the state will not be voting in the special congressional election.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County's ballot processing center on the first day mail-in ballots began arriving, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022.

It also creates potential challenges for municipal candidates, extending the campaign season and moving the election very close to the Thanksgiving holiday, which could make voter turnout challenging.

Election clerks will have to manage a hodgepodge of ballots — with both the partisan congressional primary and non-partisan municipal primaries held in September. They also will be counting both ranked-choice ballots in those cities that opted to use ranked-choice voting in their municipal races, as well as traditional head-to-head voting in the 2nd Congressional District race.

It also remains to be seen how the dynamics of municipal races will impact turnout in the congressional contest.

Will a contested, high-profile mayoral race in Salt Lake City, for example, translate into higher turnout in the city compared to elsewhere in the district?