Joanne C. Slotnik: Utah attorney general demeans the office he holds

(John Locher | AP photo) In this June 9 photo, election workers process mail-in ballots during a nearly all-mail primary election in Las Vegas. The Trump campaign and Nevada Republicans want a state judge to stop the counting of Las Vegas-area mail-in ballots, alleging that "meaningful observation" of signature-checking is impossible in the state's biggest and most Democratic-leaning county. The lawsuit filed 10 days before the Nov. 3 election alleges the local elections chief failed to get proper approval in April from the Secretary of State for the vote plan.

I read with dismay the disturbing tweet from Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes announcing that he was taking “personal leave time to help prepare and support litigation in several states.” He’s apparently worried about a “compromised election process,” even though there’s no evidence of any such compromise.

He later clarified that he wasn’t taking a leave of absence from the Attorney General’s Office, but merely “taking a personal weekend to help review and advise on potential lawsuits related to ensuring all legal votes are counted.”

Reyes is the elected attorney general for Utah. As a public official, he cannot simply remove his title like a hat to moonlight on weekends. By law, the Utah attorney general has authority to “prosecute or defend all causes to which the state ... is a party, and take charge, as attorney, of all civil legal matters in which the state is interested.” The attorney general has no authority to prosecute legal matters in which the state is not interested.

Reyes is looking for voter fraud where no fraud exists. One study found just 31 instances of voter fraud among over 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014. Another concluded that “the likely percent of non-citizen voters in recent US elections is 0.”

In short, voter fraud is fake news.

The 2020 election was similarly fraud-free. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, a 28-member delegation of election observers from the Organization of American States, invited by the Trump administration, found no evidence of pervasive fraud.

In the days after Nov. 3, The New York Times contacted every state in the country. Election leaders from both political parties reported “no evidence that fraud or other irregularities played a role in the outcome of the presidential race.”

Closer to home, our own governor-elect, Spencer Cox, rejected the president’s claim of voter fraud as “baseless.” The Trump campaign itself, while trumpeting the election as “rigged,” has failed to identify any widespread irregularities.

Given these facts, Reyes should beware. Any lawsuit alleging voter fraud in the absence of verifiable facts establishing voter fraud is unethical. Utah ethics rules prohibit a lawyer from filing a lawsuit “unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous.”

Reyes is also actively and publicly supporting a cause that, if successful, would undermine Utah’s own vote-by-mail system. The Trump campaign alleges that Pennsylvania’s “two-tiered” voting system, which allows voting in person and by mail, is unconstitutional. By joining the team that’s trying to strike down a two-tiered voting system, Reyes is, in essence, attacking the very electoral system that has made Utah a national model for voting both by mail and in person.

That’s not OK. Vote by mail has been tremendously successful in Utah. In his role as lieutenant governor, Cox was in charge of administering elections. Cox believes that “vote-by-mail ... has helped increase voter turnout” and leads “to a more informed electorate.” According to Cox, Utah has seen “very, very little fraud, and virtually no intentional fraud.”

The attorney general does have the authority to challenge the constitutionality of state statutes in court for the benefit of Utahns. But attacking a popular and effective statute for the benefit a presidential candidate is quite a different matter. Reyes should stay in his own lane.

Our attorney general’s quixotic moonlighting also harms American democracy. After a weekend trip to Nevada, Reyes alleged he’d seen unspecified “voting irregularities” there. His Nevada counterpart, Attorney General Aaron Ford, rebuked him, noting that no such evidence had emerged and that Reyes' claims constituted “a disrespectful slap in the face.”

Both The Washington Post and Politico corroborate that neither courts nor news outlets have found any evidence to date of voter fraud or other irregularities in Nevada.

By repeating and amplifying baseless claims, Reyes undermines confidence in the legitimacy of the electoral process. By creating doubts based on nothing more than wishful thinking, he undermines a bedrock principle of democracy and destabilizes the foundation of our nation. And by parroting the misinformed allegations of the president, he weaponizes misinformation as effectively as a Russian hacker.

Attorney General Reyes, I urge you to stay home in Utah, settle into your office, and do the full-time job you were elected to do.

Joanne Slotnik

Joanne Slotnik, Salt Lake City, served as an assistant attorney general in the criminal appeals division of the Utah Attorney General’s Office from 1992-2008.

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