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Stories about Utah

Ballot measures proposed in response to coronavirus and emergency powers

The coronavirus pandemic has shaped the political landscape of the United States, including the powers of governors and state legislatures. Changes have been proposed in response to the pandemic or pandemic-related regulations and restrictions. Some of these changes, such as state constitutional amendments, require ballot measures for ratification. Others are citizen-initiated proposals, meaning campaigns collect signatures to put proposals on the ballot for voters to decide.

As of March 12, three constitutional amendments related to coronavirus events and conflicts have been certified for future ballots in two states—Pennsylvania and Utah. Voters in Pennsylvania will decide the ballot measures on May 18, 2021. Both of the ballot measures resulted from conflicts between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled General Assembly over the governor’s emergency powers and the legislature’s role in emergency orders. One proposal would limit the governor’s emergency declaration to 21 days unless the legislature votes to extend the order. The other amendment would allow the legislature to pass a resolution, which the governor cannot veto, to terminate the governor’s emergency declaration.

In Utah, voters will decide a constitutional amendment on appropriations limits at the general election in 2022. The ballot measure, which received bipartisan support in the Utah State Legislature, would increase the size of appropriations permitted during an emergency and exempt emergency federal funding from the appropriations limit. 

There are also proposed constitutional amendments and ballot initiatives that could make the ballot in at least 5 additional states. In Arizona, the Senate passed an amendment to limit the governor’s emergency declarations to 30 days unless the legislature votes to extend them. The Arizona House voted to refer a ballot measure that would allow the legislature to modify or terminate the governor’s emergency order. Other citizen-initiated measures related to the governor’s emergency powers have been filed in California, Maine, and Michigan.

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Utah to vote in 2022 on increasing the limit on appropriations the state legislature can make in an emergency session

The Utah State Legislature adjourned its 2021 session on March 5, 2021, after approving a constitutional amendment that would increase the limit on appropriations the state legislature can make in an emergency session. It would increase the limit on appropriations from 1% to 5% of the total amount appropriated by the Legislature for the immediately preceding completed fiscal year. It would also eliminate the limit on how much spending the legislature could cut during a special session. The measure would also exempt federal funding from the appropriations limit. Voters will decide the amendment on November 8, 2022.

In Utah, both chambers of the state legislature need to pass a constitutional amendment by a two-thirds vote during one legislative session to refer it to the ballot.

The amendment was introduced into the legislature as House Joint Resolution 12 on February 9, 2021. The House approved the measure on February 25, 2021, by a vote of 68 to 5 with two members absent or not voting. The Senate passed the measure unanimously on March 5, 2021.

The amendment was proposed in response to special legislative sessions in 2020 convened to deal with the COVID-19 emergency declarations. Voters approved an amendment in 2018 to allow the legislature to call a special session. The 2018 amendment also put the 1% limit on appropriations and cuts. State Rep. Bradley G. Last, the measure’s sponsor, said, “What we learned in that process is that we didn’t give ourselves enough flexibility. […] As you will recall we had to call ourselves into special session several times in order to accomplish what we needed to accomplish last year. So we came to a little better understanding of the emergency situation that might present itself.”

Between 2000 and 2020, 39 constitutional amendments were referred to the ballot by the state legislature, of which 89.74% (35) were approved and 10.26% (4) were defeated.



Weber County Democrats recommend Rosemary Lesser for Utah House

On Jan. 16, the Weber County Democrats recommended Rosemary Lesser (D) to the Utah House of Representatives to represent District 10. LaWanna Shurtliff (D) formerly held the seat until her death on Dec. 30, 2020. Gov. Spencer Cox (R) approved the nomination, and Lesser was sworn in on Jan. 19. She will complete Shurtliff’s term, which was set to run from Jan. 1, 2021, to Dec. 31, 2022.  

Prior to her appointment, Lesser has served as a laborist with Ogden Clinic since 2015. She has also worked as an OB hospitalist and an obstetrician/gynecologist, both as a civilian and in the U.S. Air Force. Lesser earned a B.S. from the University of Notre Dame and an M.D. from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

According to Utah law, the governor is responsible for selecting a replacement. A liaison for the political party that last held the seat must recommend a successor to the governor and the vacancy must be filled immediately. The person who is selected to the vacant seat serves for the remainder of the unfilled term.

Utah is one of six states where the governor appoints a successor by law, but the political party holds the real power of appointment, as opposed to states where the governor is the sole appointer. The other five states are Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland, North Carolina, and West Virginia.

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Mike Kennedy sworn in to Utah State Senate

On Jan. 5, Mike Kennedy (R) was sworn in as a member of the Utah State Senate. Kennedy won a special election on Dec. 29, 2020, to fill the seat vacated by former Sen. Daniel Hemmert (R). Hemmert resigned to take a job as the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development under newly elected Gov. Spencer Cox (R). 

Delegates from the Utah County Republican Party chose Kennedy to replace Hemmert in an online special election. He prevailed over Jeanette Bennett, David Shallenberger, Staci Valentine Carroll, Jon Anderson, and John St. Clair.

Kennedy previously served in the Utah House of Representatives, representing District 27 from 2013 to 2018. He left the legislature to mount an unsuccessful campaign against Sen. Mitt Romney (R) in the 2018 Republican U.S. Senate primary.

The Utah Senate is the upper chamber of the Utah Legislature. With Kennedy filling Hemmert’s seat, the current partisan breakdown of the senate is 23 Republicans and six Democrats. 

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Burgess Owens defeats incumbent Ben McAdams in Utah’s 4th Congressional District

Burgess Owens (R) defeated incumbent Rep. Ben McAdams (D) and John Molnar (L) in Utah’s 4th Congressional District. 

McAdams was first elected in 2018, defeating incumbent Mia Love (R) 50.1% to 49.9%—a margin of 694 votes. His 2018 election made the 4th District one of 30 House Districts that voted for Donald Trump (R) in 2016 and that a Democrat represented in 2020.

Owens played professional football with the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders, including as part of the Raiders’ 1981 Super Bowl Championship team. Owens later founded Second Chance 4 Youth, a nonprofit supporting incarcerated juveniles.

Heading into the election, Democrats had a 232-197 majority in the House. Democrats were projected to maintain their majority after the 2020 elections. We’ve called 421 races so far. Democrats have won 213 seats and Republicans have won 203. So far, 13 seats have changed party hands. Republicans won nine seats currently held by Democrats and one held by a Libertarian. Democrats won three seats held by Republicans. 



One Utah Supreme Court justice seeks retention in November

Utah Supreme Court Justice John A. Pearce is standing for retention election on November 3, 2020. Pearce was appointed by former Utah Governor Gary Herbert (R).

Herbert appointed four of the five justices currently sitting on the court. Gov. Michael Leavitt (R) appointed the other.

The governor of Utah appoints the five justices of the supreme court with the assistance of the Utah Judicial Nominating Commission. The governor has majority control over membership on the seven-member judicial nominating commission. The governor appoints six of these members, no less than two and no more than four of whom may be lawyers. Two of the lawyer members must be appointed from a list of nominees submitted by the Utah State Bar. The Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice appoints the final member of the commission, who does not vote.

New justices must face a retention election during the next general election after they serve at least three years on the bench. Justices then stand for retention every ten years. Since 2008, justices facing retention elections have won 98% of the time. In Utah, there has not been a single justice that lost retention during this same time frame.

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Reyes wins Utah Republican attorney general primary

Incumbent Sean Reyes won the Republican primary for attorney general of Utah on June 30. As of Tuesday afternoon, he had received 54.2% of the vote to David Leavitt’s 45.8%.

Reyes became attorney general in 2013. He ran on his record, saying he protected children, teens, people’s online data, and family finances. Leavitt was elected as Utah County attorney in 2018. He said criminal justice reform should be the focus of the attorney general’s office and that he would work to reduce the number of plea bargains and increase the number of jury trials.

The Associated Press called the race July 3 as absentee ballots continued to be counted.


Cox wins GOP gubernatorial primary in Utah

Spencer Cox, Utah’s lieutenant governor, won the gubernatorial primary on June 30. As of Tuesday, he had received 36.4% of the vote to Jon Huntsman’s 34.6%. Gregory Hughes received 21.1%, and Thomas Wright, 7.9%.

The race was called Monday as absentee ballots continued to be counted. Cox advances to the general election with his running mate, Deidre Henderson.

Huntsman served as Utah’s governor from 2005 to 2009. Incumbent Gov. Gary Herbert (R) did not seek re-election and endorsed Cox in the primary.


Owens wins four-way primary in Utah’s 4th Congressional District

Nonprofit owner and former professional football player Burgess Owens (R) defeated three other candidates in the Republican primary for Utah’s 4th Congressional District on June 30, 2020. As of 10:15 a.m. Mountain Time on July 1, Owens had received 44 percent of the vote followed by state Rep. Kim Coleman (R-42) and radio personality Jay McFarland (R) with 24 and 22 percent of the vote, respectively. A fourth candidate, Trent Christensen (R), received 11 percent.
Owens will face incumbent Rep. Ben McAdams (D), one of 30 Democrats who represents a district won by President Donald Trump (R) in 2016. McAdams was first elected in 2018 after challenging and defeating incumbent Rep. Mia Love (R), receiving 50.1 percent of the vote to Love’s 49.9 percent, a margin of 694 votes. During the presidential election, Trump received 39 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s (D) 32 percent in the 4th District.


Colorado, Oklahoma, and Utah to hold congressional primaries June 30

The statewide primaries for Colorado, Oklahoma, and Utah are on June 30, 2020. The filing deadline to run passed in March for Colorado and Utah and in April for Oklahoma.

One U.S. Senate seat and seven U.S. House seats are up for election in Colorado. A Democratic and Republican primary is being held for each seat. All eight incumbents are running for re-election, leaving no open seats. Seven incumbents are unopposed in their primaries; Rep. Scott Tipton (R-3) faces one challenger, Lauren Boebert. Entering the 2020 election, Colorado has one Democratic U.S. senator, one Republican U.S. senator, and four Democratic and three Republican U.S. representatives.

One U.S. Senate and five U.S. House seats are up for election in Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, unopposed candidates automatically advance to the general election. The 3rd Congressional District has no primaries on the ballot, the 2nd Congressional District does not have a Democratic primary on the ballot, and the 1st Congressional District does not have a Republican primary on the ballot. All six incumbents are running for re-election, leaving no open seats. U.S. Representatives Kevin Hern (R-1) and Frank Lucas (R-3) faced no primary opposition and advanced automatically to the general election. Entering the 2020 election, Oklahoma has two Republican U.S. senators and one Democratic and four Republican U.S. representatives.

Four U.S. House seats are up for election in Utah. In Utah, the Democratic and Republican parties hold conventions to choose their Congressional candidates. If no convention candidates receive 60% of the vote or if additional candidates petition to get on the ballot, a primary is held. The 1st Congressional district is holding both Democratic and Republican primaries, and the 4th Congressional district is holding a Republican primary. The remaining districts’ major party candidates were decided at the convention. Three of the four incumbents are running for re-election. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-1) did not file for re-election as he is running for Lieutenant Governor of Utah. Entering the 2020 election, Utah has two Republican U.S. senators and one Democratic and three Republican U.S. representatives.

Candidates are competing to advance to the general election scheduled for November 3, 2020. If no candidates receive a majority of the vote in the Oklahoma primary, the two highest vote-getters will advance to a primary runoff on August 25, 2020. Colorado and Utah do not hold primary runoffs.

These states’ primaries are the 27th, 28th, and 29th to take place in the 2020 election cycle. The next primary is on July 7 in New Jersey.

Entering the 2020 election, the U.S. Senate has 45 Democrats, 53 Republicans, and two independents who caucus with the Democratic Party. Thirty-three of the 100 U.S. Senate seats are up for regular election, and two seats are up for special election. A majority in the chamber requires 51 seats. The U.S. House of Representatives has 233 Democrats, 197 Republicans, one Libertarian, and four vacancies. All 435 U.S. House seats are up for election. A majority in the chamber requires 218 seats.

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