Utah passes election bill requiring in-person voting options

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, and Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, chat during a special session of the Legislature at the Utah State Capitol Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Utah legislators unanimously voted during a special session Thursday in favor of a plan for the November election that includes outdoor voting and additional ballot drop boxes in rural parts of the state. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah legislators unanimously voted during a special session Thursday in favor of a plan for the November election that includes outdoor voting and additional ballot drop boxes in rural parts of the state.

The bill would require counties to provide an in-person voting option this fall, which could include drive-through or walk-up voting, in addition to the state’s vote-by-mail system. Most of conservative Utah already votes by mail, in contrast with recent by-mail voting skepticism from Republican President Donald Trump.

“As we all know, everybody looks to the state of Utah when looking at mail-in voting,” Republican Sen. Wayne Harper said Thursday. “We do it right. This goes through and … recognizes what we do, but at the same time requires and allows for all people who want to vote in person the option to do that.”

In April, the state legislature voted to run the June 30 primary election entirely by mail and temporarily do away with traditional polling places.

Republican Rep. Stephen Handy, who is co-sponsoring the legislation, said he hopes these additional voting options will give the electorate more confidence in the process.

The bill also requires Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s office to conduct a public education campaign on voting options included in the legislation and encourage voting by mail. Handy said the campaign’s funding will come from remaining CARES Act funds.

The bill would automatically repeal in January 2021 except for one section that classifies ballot harvesting, the practice of a person sending or dropping off ballots on another voter’s behalf, as a class A misdemeanor.

Handy said there haven’t been documented cases of ballot harvesting in Utah. But he hopes this bill will prevent it from happening in the future.

Lawmakers also voted Thursday to ease the public health qualifications required for the executive director of the state’s health department.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Allen Christensen, said the legislation is intended to accommodate the department’s interim leader Richard Saunders, who does not meet the existing requirements to hold the job permanently.

Previously, an executive director who is not a physician needed to have a master’s degree in public health or public administration or have at least seven years of professional experience in public health, with at least five of those years in a senior administrative position.

Christensen’s bill would only require an executive director to have worked for five years in public health and spent three of those years in a leadership role.

The bill also requires one of the department’s deputy directors to have completed at least one year of graduate work at an accredited public health school or program and have at least five years of full-time professional experience in public health.

Rep. Suzanne Harrison said she was concerned that the bill was “lowering the bar” for health department leadership.

This sends the wrong message to the public about what our priorities are,” said Harrison, a Democrat. “It sets a dangerous precedent changing a statute because of one person who doesn’t meet the criteria.”

Republican Rep. Kelly Miles, a bill co-sponsor, said he disagreed with Harrison’s characterization and pointed out that the legislation sets additional requirements for the deputy director position.

In the Senate, the bill passed with 25 in favor and four against and passed in the House with 56 in favor and 16 against.

Nearly every lawmaker in the GOP-dominated legislature wore masks during the session. Representatives and senators who were not present participated remotely via teleconference.

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Sophia Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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