What’s the Deal with the Special Election?

On May 17, Rep. Jason Chaffetz rocked the news waves when he announced his intent to resign as the representative of Utah’s 3rd Congressional District.  His resignation, which will be effective as of June 30, left state leaders scrambling to put together a special election so the 3rd District could choose a replacement. The controversy and complexity surrounding this issue, as well as the speed at which it has been moving, have left many people wondering what is going on, so we wanted to make sure you know what’s the deal with the special election.

First, Some Background

The last time Utah had a vacancy in one of its House Districts was almost 100 years ago, so it was no surprise that the government was not used to calling a special election. However, it was surprising that Utah law itself was not prepared for this eventuality. The only applicable law says that “when a vacancy occurs for any reason in the office of a representative in Congress, the governor shall issue a proclamation calling an election to fill the vacancy.” There are no laws saying how such an election should be conducted or the timeline it should follow.

The Legislature had previously recognized this vagueness when Rep. Chris Stewart was rumored to being considered for Secretary of the Air Force. The Legislature proactively attempted to craft special election procedures during the 2017 General Legislative Session; however, the bill did not pass.

A Battle for Power

Now that Chaffetz has resigned while the law was still uncertain, his midterm vacancy has created conflict between Utah’s executive and legislative branches. Citing Utah Code 67-1a-2(a), the Lt. Governor confirms his authority to conduct elections. Article 1 Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution grants the executive authority of each state the responsibility to issue “writs of election” to fill a vacancy. This was confirmed by the Legislature in the vague law cited above which directed the Governor to issue a proclamation for a special election in the case of a vacancy.

The controversy in the issue lies in the lack of influence the state legislature would have in the special election process. Legislators cite their own section of the federal constitution that supports their claim to a decision-making role in all elections. Article 1 Section 4 states: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.”

The Utah legislature is only able to assemble during certain times of the year. In order for them to create a plan for the election, Governor Herbert would have to call them into a special session. According to the Deseret News “Both House and Senate Republicans voted unanimously in their lunchtime caucus meetings to tell the governor to call a special session of the Legislature so a law can be passed putting a special election process in place.” However, the governor refused to do so. This has led the Legislature to threaten their intent to propose a constitutional amendment that would allow them to call themselves into special session.

Who Should Choose?

Governor Herbert’s concern and the supposed reason he refused to call a special session is that the legislature was seeking to undermine S.B. 54. This bill permits a candidate to seek a political party’s nomination by collecting signatures, in addition to the standard caucus/convention that has been the basis of party politics in Utah. S.B. 54 was a compromise from the Count My Vote initiative, and sought to allow more people to be involved in choosing their representatives. Permitting candidates to bypass the convention where only a handful of party delegates chose the nominee allows for more constituents to be involved in the process.

Governor Herbert, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, and Speaker Greg Hughes disagreed on how the election should proceed. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the House and Senate agreed to allow party delegates to choose the nominees. Niederhauser argues that this would fill the vacancy as soon as possible, and ensure that Utah is well represented in Washington. Herbert believes that the ability to sign petitions will put more power in the hands of 3rd Congressional District voters, rather than party delegates. Though it will require a few extra months, it may provide an opportunity to candidates who may not have won under the party caucus/convention system.

The Special Election

In the end, the Governor ignored the threats of the Legislature and stuck with his position. Lt. Gov. Cox devised special election procedures on a condensed timeline mirroring the upcoming municipal elections. Within those procedures, the Lt. Gov. provided for candidates to collect signatures according to S.B. 54, possibly allowing those who do not get nominated in their party’s convention to appear on the primary ballot. If all goes according to plan, Utah’s 3rd Congressional District should have a new representative on Nov. 8!  

Here are some of the dates that you should keep in mind as the special election progresses:

  • May 26 – Deadline of candidacy and intent to gather signature period ends
  • June 12 – Deadline for partisan signature gathering candidates to submit petition signatures
  • June 12 – Deadline for unaffiliated candidates to declare candidacy and submit signatures
  • June 17 – Republican 3rd District nominating convention
  • June 17 – Democratic State Convention
  • June 30 – Vacancy
  • July 17 – Voter Registration Deadline for mail-in registration to vote in primary election
  • August 8 – Voter Registration Deadline for online and in-person registration to vote in primary election
  • August 11 – Early voting ends for primary election
  • August 15 – Special and Municipal Primary Election
  • September 8 – Last day for a candidate to declare write-in candidacy
  • October 10 – Voter Registration Deadline for mail-in registration to vote in general election)
  • October 31 – Voter Registration Deadline for online and in-person registration to vote in general election
  • November 3 – Early voting ends for general election
  • Nov 7 – Special and Municipal General Election

How to Be Involved

  • Find out if you live in the Utah’s 3rd District. Only residents in this district will be able to vote in this special election. To find out which district you live in, go here.
  • Be aware of important dates on the timeline, particularly voter registration deadlines, early voting cutoffs, and election dates.
  • Register to vote if you have not already done so! You can register online here.
  • Volunteer to help register people to vote! Voterise is a great organization seeking to increase voter registration and participation in Utah, particularly among millennials.
  • Learn more about those who are running! There have been 22 candidates who have declared their candidacy so far, and you can research them from a list found here.
  • If your preferred candidate is collecting signatures to appear on a primary ballot, sign their petition! Remember that you are only allowed to sign for one candidate.
  • Most importantly, VOTE!!!
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