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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah state senators rejected giving voters an extra week to return their by-mail ballots but ended up unanimously approving other changes to the November election because of the COVID-19 pandemic during Thursday’s special session of the Legislature.
The Utah House followed suit, approving the bill in unanimous agreement.
“With the national debate regarding the post office and potential cutbacks in service, I think the extra week will provide comfort to voters, election officials, voter advocacy groups, candidates,” Senate Minority Assistant Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said in calling for ballots to go out 28 days, rather than 21 days, before the election.
Iwamoto said the additional time is supported by county clerks throughout Utah.
But after Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, and other Republican senators said while the issue is worth talking about, the discussion should wait until the 2021 Legislature. Iwamoto’s proposed amendment to SB6007, the bill detailing how the November election will be conducted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, failed.
Anderegg said because most campaigns already have plotted their advertising and get-out-the-vote strategies through Election Day, “moving the goal posts midstream, right now, is a bad idea. It’s going to favor some over others.”
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the bill’s sponsor, said he’d been assured the current two weeks would be fine.
The bill also restores some in-person voting options that were suspended for the state’s June 30 primary due to the health crisis and penalizes what’s known as “ballot harvesting” — collecting ballots from others.
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, sought to amend the bill to allow mail-in ballots to be postmarked on Election Day — just as in the June primary. She worried making a switch this election cycle would cause unnecessary confusion and result in some ballots not being counted.
“Election Day should be Election Day for everyone,” she said.
But Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton and the floor sponsor, said each county in the state is required to allow in-person voting — in contrast to the June primary in which no in-person voting was allowed.
“We have not seen a need for postmarking on that day,” Handy said.
Arent’s amendment failed.
The bill no longer includes a provision that would have given Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the Republican candidate for governor whose office oversees elections, the authority to declare a health emergency and suspend in-person voting not conducted outdoors.
Harper said Cox’s office “didn’t feel comfortable with that authority” and instead would work with each county to limit voting to safer options in the event of a resurgence of the virus.
While Utah is among the most Republican states in the country, it is also one of just five that have been using universal by-mail voting, a system that has been slammed by President Donald Trump. As more states shift to voting by mail this fall for health reasons, U.S. Post Office resources have been cut back by the administration.
Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, told reporters later that the post office is being treated unfairly but will be able to handle vote-by-mail elections this presidential election year, based on Utah’s success over a number of years.
“I think it’s shameful that the Postal Service has been put in this light for all kinds of political manipulations,” Mayne said when asked what her message to the president would be. “I think nationally, things have gone awry for the Postal Service.”
The special session, the sixth this year, got underway earlier in the day with House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, noting the extraordinary challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic already have forced lawmakers to redo the state budget multiple times and pass a flurry of new bills.
But despite these frequent meetings, Wilson said House lawmakers are not going to be transformed into a full-time Legislature.
“We are citizens first and lawmakers second,” he said.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters that it feels like the 2020 Legislature never ended that “we’ve been here here all year long.”
First up for consideration Thursday was HB6001, by Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, that allows wills to be drafted and executed in a digital fashion provided there are two witnesses.
With the national debate regarding the post office and potential cutbacks in service, I think the extra week will provide comfort to voters, election officials, voter advocacy groups, candidates.
–Senate Minority Assistant Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay
Snow said the bill is especially critical given the health threats posed by the coronavirus. It passed the House 71-1 and now moves over to the Senate.
The House also passed HB6004, by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, that allows schools to forgo mandatory evacuation drills given the crowding that would result.
Moss said to have as many as 3,000 students clustered together would undercut any precautions schools are taking to prevent the spread of the virus. Schools are not forbidden from doing the drills but are allowed to take a pass under her measure. The bill would allow schools to forgo the drills into next February, when the situation could be revisited.
Also in the education arena, House members approved HB6012, by Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, which authorizes the State Board of Education to conduct a headcount earlier in the school to assess enrollment impacts due to coronavirus.
“This allows them to do an early snapshot in September,” Moss said, adding that it also provides greater flexibility to parents when it comes to charter school options.
In yet another proposed redo of the state budget, the House passed HB6002, which loosens up additional money for health clinics, legal defense and other areas hit hard by the coronavirus.
“This bill is the next step in our plan for managing the state budget,” said Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane.
The measure provides for $138 million in federal money in unemployment insurance benefits, granting those out of work an additional $300 a week on top of state funded benefits.
The Senate kicked off with SB6002, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, adjusting the deadline for a financial report from Dec. 1 to the end of the year to allow for more time given the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on government operations.
Lawmakers are also set to spend some $150 million in federal relief funds, including putting aside $25 million for state parks that have seen increased visitors.
No longer on the special session agenda is modifying or extending Gov. Gary Herbert’s emergency orders on COVID-19, including a requirement that masks be worn in state facilities, after the Legislature’s GOP leadership was unable to muster a veto-proof majority.
Herbert extended the state’s emergency order related to the health crisis and will reissue other orders set to expire at midnight. The issue of the governor’s powers in a pandemic is expected to continue to be discussed, with action likely in the 2021 Legislature.