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SALT LAKE CITY — A crowd of about 200 people rallied on Utah's Capitol Hill and packed an overflowing committee hearing on Wednesday to support a Republican lawmaker who's calling for an Arizona-style election audit in the state.
Even though President Donald Trump handily won Utah in 2020, that doesn't deter Rep. Steve Christiansen, R-West Jordan, who told the cheering crowd he's seeking a widespread, "forensic" audit in Utah because the issue of "election integrity" goes "much, much deeper than Donald J. Trump."
"It goes all the way to the Constitution of the United States of America for me," he said.
Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, both Republicans, were left "frustrated by the misinformation" that was presented at the hearing, according to a joint statement issued by the governor's office.
"We recognize some voters have legitimate questions about our elections and we invite all citizens to be involved in our local elections to see the process first-hand. But make no mistake: There is absolutely no evidence of election fraud in Utah," the statement said in part.
Christiansen on Tuesday appeared as a guest on a podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to Trump, to draw attention to his efforts, hyping Wednesday's gathering as a "massive rally" fueled by "hundreds and thousands of people across this state that care deeply about their right to a free and fair election."
"They've all been invited to come and we're anticipating a fantastic turnout," Christiansen told Bannon. "The purpose of the rally is to push for an audit, as needs to be done in all 50 states, and also to push for election reform."
That "election reform" Christiansen is pushing entails doing away with voting by mail — a voting method that's existed in Utah for almost a decade — and voting machines.
Wednesday, the rally on the steps of the Utah Capitol began as crowd of about several dozen and grew to over 100 before they lined up outside the House building to pack the Judiciary Interim Committee hearing, which included an agenda item titled "election integrity" on its schedule to hear Christiansen and his supporters' demands — even though that committee does not have the power to call for an election audit.
In total, Utah Highway Patrol troopers tallied about 200 in-person attendees to the committee hearing, contrary to Christiansen's comment during the committee hearing that about 400 to 600 turned out. During the rally on the Capitol's steps, Christiansen said he'd hoped for a "thousand" attendees.
The calls for a "full forensic audit" of Utah's elections, no more voting by mail and no more voting machines come after Christiansen in June went to Maricopa County, Arizona, to observe the audit that took place there.
That audit of 2.1 million votes, financed largely by $6.7 million in donations from far-right groups and Trump defenders, affirmed President Joe Biden's victory in that county, finding 99 additional votes for Biden and 261 fewer votes for Trump.
Christiansen continues to call for an election audit in Utah even though he has presented no evidence of widespread election fraud or issues in Utah's election results. Acknowledging he has no proof, Christiansen argues there's no harm in conducting a widespread audit to confirm the state's elections are, indeed, free and fair.
"Bottom line, if we do an audit and it's clean, then I've done my job," he said. "If we do an audit and it identifies opportunities for improvement, I've done my job."
Though the Judiciary committee allowed Christiansen the time to present his calls for an audit, it didn't act on his request.
Christiansen submitted an audit request in December 2020 to the Legislative Audit Committee, which hasn't granted his request. He urged his crowd of supporters "to reach out to every member of that committee and let them know you want an audit and you're willing to pay for it."
"What we're hearing now is they're warming up to the idea that an audit may be necessary, but they don't want to pay any more than what is already in the budget," Christiansen said.
Utah's top election official 'frustrated' by misinformation
Cox and Henderson took issue with some of the questions raised about Utah elections in the hearing.
"Namely, that voting machines can be hacked, that there are more ballots than voters, that algorithms control voter registration, and other spurious claims made without evidence. All of these assertions are absolute falsehoods and run counter to Utah law and the foundation of our constitutional republic," Cox and Henderson said.
"Utah has long been a model to the nation when it comes to voting and voter security. County clerks and local election offices execute their duties with accuracy and integrity. Utah follows the law."
Utah's county clerks and state election officials have lauded the state's election system as a "model" for the country. Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature passed and Cox signed a resolution recognizing Utah county clerks for running a widely successful election without any significant problems.
"There have been a lot of concerning accusations and inaccuracies just in general that we've heard ... since the past election," Henderson said during the committee hearing.
Henderson said she fears the "talk that has been circulating is serving to undermine — deliberately undermine — voter confidence, and it concerns me greatly because it becomes a threat to our democracy, becomes a threat to our constitutional republic, and a threat to our freedom."
"We believe in a peaceful transfer of power in the United States of America. We value the fact that every citizen has a right to have their voice heard ... and that the process by which they do that is free and fair elections. This is what we live by here in the state," Henderson said.
"In the U.S., sometimes we win elections, and sometimes we lose elections. And that's OK, because there's always another election," she said.
While Henderson spoke, some of Christiansen's supporters grumbled and scoffed under their breath.
Where are claims of fraud coming from?
The 2020 election divided an already polarized U.S., and was undermined by Trump's claims that the election was stolen from him — claims that lacked evidence and faltered in dozens of court cases.
Now, almost a year later, those claims live on. Even in Utah, county clerks are still facing misinformation that throw the election's results into question, especially on social media, said Weber County Clerk/Auditor Ricky Hatch.
Clerks have tried to combat that misinformation by educating Utahns about all the safeguards currently in place to ensure elections are safe, free and fair, but oftentimes "there are louder voices," Hatch said.
"On social media, posts that are inflammatory, outlandish, inciting, scary and quite often incomplete tend to get more interest than calm, measured posts of controlled safeguards, things that aren't quite as exciting," Hatch said.
Every year, Utah's elections are already audited at the state and local level in a certification process called a canvass. Before the certification of an election — in a public meeting — clerk staff conduct an audit of a random sample of all ballots cast. During the audit, they manually review and compare the audited ballots to the system-tabulated record to ensure the accuracy of the equipment.
The audit results are public records that are reported to the Board of Canvassers and the lieutenant governor, who oversees elections in the state.
Henderson, while calling Utah a "model for other states to emulate," said the state has also made "methodical and deliberate improvements to its election law."
"Some of these improvements do include universal vote by mail, voter ballot tracking, same-day voter registration," Henderson said. "But each of these improvements also come with multiple safeguards to ensure the integrity of the process, such as public audits, signature verification, chain of custody requirements ... address validation, not connecting any of our election equipment to the internet, secure drop boxes ... and a process for candidates and citizens to challenge the results of an election."
Henderson added Utah conducted 462 individual races last year, and "to my knowledge there has not been a single challenge to any of those results."
"That being said, we are also continually learning and improving and looking for ways that we can do better, and there are ways we can do better," Henderson said.
Henderson said she's working with county clerks and Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, to propose legislation to add "additional safeguards," including audits of voter registration rolls, in-person "spot checks" of post-election audits without notice, and improvements to controls governing ballot processing.
Hatch said Utah's election system continues to serve as a model for other states.
"At the same time, we fully recognize that voter confidence across the country is suffering. And even with our exemplary system, Utah is no exception," Hatch said. "Utahns hear what appears to be horror stories in other states or see complex statistical analyses that supposedly prove a stolen election.
"Now whether these stories or analyses are true or not, it's no surprise that some voters worry about the security and integrity of elections in our own state," Hatch added. "Utah's election officials know that we're not perfect, nor is our election system perfect. No election system is. And this is why we've constantly worked to improve ourselves and the elections that we administer."
Hatch went on to describe in detail how Utah's current elections are already audited and re-audited, and all the safeguards already in place to ensure election security.
Hatch urged Utahns to come see for themselves how clerks conduct elections.
"Come see how we're addressing the risks," he said. "We think you'll be comforted by the current safeguards and processes."