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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's top election official on Wednesday called claims that sow "seeds of doubt" in the integrity of the state's election system "destructive" and of "great worry."
Republican Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson's comments came the day after a GOP-controlled committee of lawmakers voted to approve a legislative audit of the state's election system.
Henderson said she welcomes that examination — noting the Utah Legislature conducted a similar legislative audit in 2019 — but said what concerns her is the "narrative" surrounding it that casts doubt on the safety, security and accuracy of Utah's elections.
"I am concerned about feeding the fire of some people who have made it their life's mission to sow seeds of doubt in the integrity of our elections systems, and that is of great worry to me," she said.
Given that narrative, Henderson had words of caution for Utah lawmakers as the audit moves forward.
"I certainly hope that legislators and others are careful about how they frame this, and do not try to score cheap political points with it. This is way too important for that," she said. "Building trust is not easy in this environment. But the trust comes from transparency and it comes from ethics and competency."
That vote was preceded by a separate effort to put an independent, "forensic" audit on Utah's ballot — led by a Republican Utah lawmaker who resigned in October amid backlash for spearheading a committee hearing fraught with misinformation on Utah's Capitol Hill to call for an Arizona-style election audit, even though former President Donald Trump handily won Utah in 2020.
Henderson's office has also received complaints from southern Utah's Washington County about people knocking on doors asking residents about their votes, using voter information that would be available to candidates.
"They were asking a lot of pointed questions and made these people very uncomfortable. And that is concerning, definitely," Henderson said.
The endgame of that effort, Henderson said, is to "roll back the time" on Utah's election systems and dismantle it for the explicit purpose of restricting voter access.
"These folks who are purporting to only be concerned about the integrity of the election system, that's not what this is about," Henderson said. "This is less about the integrity of the voting system than it is about restricting access to the ballot from certain people. This is about voter restriction. This is about making sure not as many people can vote."
Henderson said it's "really important" for Utahns to understand that those efforts undermine all of the policies and laws the Utah Legislature itself has enacted over the years to increase voter access, including voting by mail.
"And that's not OK. That's not how we do things in Utah," she said.
Before he resigned, Rep. Steve Christiansen, R-West Jordan, rallied his supporters to call for an independent, "forensic" audit like the one seen in Arizona, where an outside firm was hired to conduct a review after Trump falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen. That review, though described by experts as riddled with errors, biased and flawed methodology, confirmed Democrat Joe Biden's win in the state.
It's important to note the legislative audit ordered Tuesday by the Utah Legislative Audit Subcommittee, which includes several top legislative leaders, is not the same as an Arizona-style audit.
The Legislative Auditor General's office, Henderson said, is "professional and nonpartisan." She said she has the "utmost confidence" in how the office will manage the audit.
House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, requested the audit to "assess the integrity and accuracy of voter rolls, the legitimacy and security of submitted ballots, and the systems and processes within election offices," according to a statement issued Wednesday.
Building trust is not easy in this environment. But the trust comes from transparency and it comes from ethics and competency.
–Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson
Before Tuesday's vote, Democrats including House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, objected to the audit request, calling it unnecessary and worrying it would fan unsupported doubts over Utah's election system.
Schultz pushed back, asking, "What are you so afraid of?"
"It is dumbfounding that many Democrats have made this a partisan issue, fighting relentlessly against, and even voting in opposition to the audit request. I ask them: What are you so afraid of?" Schultz said in the statement. "I believe it is important to provide assurance to Utahns that our election systems and processes continue to be well-secured, fair, and above reproach. Why would we not want to assess what works well and what could be done better in our election systems?"
GOP state lawmaker Phil Lyman, who is sponsoring another bill that would implement regular audits, said his concerns go beyond the 2020 election and include funding for electronic systems where voter registration data in Utah and elsewhere is housed.
"I can't imagine someone not wanting to understand what is going on with the election system," Lyman told The Associated Press.
Henderson said she looks forward to the findings of the legislative audit, noting that the 2019 audit was "a very strong, favorable audit of Utah's voting systems" that found strong controls.
"I imagine they'll find something similar," though she added there's "always room for improvement," and she looks forward to implementing the audit's recommendations.
"There's nothing that has been done that should cast doubt on outcomes of anything that has happened before now," Henderson said. "Moving forward, we're only going to be bolstering our already very good, very secure systems and ensuring that all eligible voters have access to ballots."
Contributing: Associated Press