Utah Considers Special Election Options as Congressional Vacancy Looms

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Utah is considering how to schedule a special Congressional election – its first since 1930 – after this week’s surprise announcement that Rep. Jason Chaffetz will not seek re-election and may be stepping down soon. KSL-TV has more:

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, confirmed Thursday he may step down before the end of his term, sending state officials scrambling to get a process in place for a potential special election to fill his 3rd District seat in Congress.

“My future plans are not yet finalized, but I haven’t ruled out the possibility of leaving early. In the meantime, I still have a job to do, and I have no plans to take my foot off the gas,” Chaffetz said in a statement.

He made a surprise announcement Wednesday that he would not run for a sixth term or for any other office in 2018, instead returning to the private sector in what he suggested would be a communications position.

While Chaffetz is not expected to resign this week, state officials are recognizing they need to be ready when and if he does.

But all state law says is that it’s up to Gov. Gary Herbert to call a special election for Chaffetz’s seat if he leaves before his current term ends at the beginning of 2019. There are no specifics about how such an election should be conducted.

“All options on on the table,” state Elections Director Mark Thomas said. “We’ll have to figure it out.”

Utah hasn’t had to hold a special election for a congressional seat since first-term Republican Elmer Leatherwood died in office in December 1929, but that election wasn’t held until Election Day in November of 1930, according to UtahPolicy.com.

Complicating the process somewhat is the fact that the state has already tried and failed recently to agree on a procedure for special elections:

An attempt to spell out how such an election would be conducted failed during the 2017 Legislature. At the time, 2nd District Rep. Chris Stewart was reportedly a contender for secretary of the Air Force under President Donald Trump.

Thomas said “a lot of different scenarios” for a special congressional election were discussed during the session, including putting qualified candidates from all political parties on a single ballot with the possibility of a run-off race.

Or, he said, voters might choose from candidates picked by the various political parties, an option that could also include candidates who bypass the party nomination process and gather voter signatures for a place on the ballot.

The governor has the power to dictate how the election is handled, Thomas said.

Herbert said Thursday a special election might not look that much different from a regular election — including a primary if needed — but would have to be handled in a constricted time frame.

“I think there is a little uncertainty as to what the process is because we have not done it before,” the governor said Thursday at his monthly news conference on KUED. “We will let the attorney general’s office and our legal experts guide on this.”

The issue facing the state is how quickly a special election would move – at the expense of allowing a more thorough role for the political parties:

State Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who sponsored last session’s special elections legislation, said there’s a tradeoff between how involved the process is and how fast a vacancy can be filled.

“That may be good or bad,” Bramble said. A traditional-style election that includes party conventions, signature-gathering and possibly a primary in advance of a final decision would take at least three months, he said.

“It simply runs the clock. That was part of the debate. Do we want to fill the seat quickly or do we want to be deliberative,” he said. Mentioned as a possible candidate himself for Chaffetz’s seat, Bramble said only, “stay tuned.”

The governor, a Republican, said he does not believe a special session of the Legislature will be needed to deal with the process for filling a congressional vacancy if Chaffetz does decide to leave early.

However, the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah asked Herbert to call lawmakers into special session “as soon as possible” to set up a special election process, warning that otherwise the election could end up in the courts.

“it would be foolish for the state to rush into a special election that isn’t governed by clear timelines and procedures set in law,” Chase Thomas, the alliance’s policy and advocacy counsel, said.

The decision about how and when to hold the special election is obviously important to political actors, given the high degree of interest both in Utah and nationwide in this and other Congressional vacancies, but it will also be important to local officials tasked with running the election. We’ve already seen drama this cycle about special election administration in states like Montana and Georgia – hopefully policymakers in the Beehive State can find a way to avoid that and be ready if and when a vacancy actually occurs. Stay tuned …

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