Iron County Commission votes to certify election, ballot issue triggers proposed law change

Iron County Commission votes to certify election, ballot issue triggers proposed law change

Last updated: 09.07.24, 21:12

By Tracie Sullivan, for Iron County Today

After intensive review and debate over the validity of more than 400 late-postmarked absentee ballots, the Iron County Commission voted 2-1 on Tuesday to certify the results of the 2024 primary election.

Iron County Commissioner Paul Cozzens expressed reservations about certifying election results during Monday’s meeting, citing concerns about the processing of ballots.

The Commission then postponed the certification for one day to examine the legal scope that could allow the inclusion of the disputed ballots.

Iron County Clerk Jon Whittaker said during the meeting that he was concerned that the ballots in question may have been mailed by the June 24 deadline, but due to delayed processing by the U.S. Postal Service, they had a June 25 postmark and therefore could not be counted.

Whittaker highlighted the logistical challenges of processing ballots from area code 847 in southern Utah, which are routed through Las Vegas before returning to their final destinations. A move intended to streamline operations inadvertently caused delays that affected numerous voters.

Emotions ran high as Whittaker highlighted the impact on over 400 voters whose ballots were disregarded due to postmark technicalities. He passionately defended the integrity of the election, claiming that without clear evidence, counting the late-postmarked ballots and certifying the result was consistent with election law.

Iron County Attorney Chad Dotson told the commission that while there may have been a processing problem, the law clearly requires ballots to be postmarked before June 25. His legal advice was reinforced by officials in the lieutenant governor’s office, who agreed with the interpretation of the law.

“The law is clear,” Dotson said. “Without irrefutable evidence that these ballots were mailed before the deadline, the commission has no choice but to certify this election.”

Despite legal advice and assistance from officials in the lieutenant governor’s office and the legislature, Cozzens abstained from certifying the results on Tuesday, citing concerns about potential voter disenfranchisement.

“In cases like this, what is legal is not always right,” Cozzens said. “Today, it is more important to send the message that elections matter and every vote counts than to simply rubber-stamp a flawed process. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience certify this election.”

When Commissioner Mike Bleak voted for approval, he expressed his frustration with the situation.

“This is rubbish,” Commissioner Mike Bleak said at Tuesday’s meeting. “At the end of the day, we are a nation of rules governed by the rule of law, and in this particular case, the rule of law is very clear and there is no room for maneuver.”

Sheriff Ken Carpenter, who voted in Commissioner Marilyn Wood’s absence, expressed his reluctance but stressed the need to certify the vote count to protect the votes of more than 9,000 voters.

“By not certifying this vote, we are putting the other 9,000-plus voters at risk and potentially disenfranchising them,” Carpenter said. “As much as it pains me to see 400 ballots that I believe were lawfully cast, we have no clear evidence to justify counting them. To protect the sanctity of the election in our district, I believe we must certify this vote.”

Cozzens then contradicted Carpenter’s statement and doubted that any judge would invalidate the remaining votes.

“I question that a little bit. I don’t think any judge in the world would do something like that. I really wouldn’t. I could be wrong, but I don’t think it would stand up,” Cozzens said.

In a later interview with Iron County Today, Dotson agreed, saying the votes probably would not have been invalidated. But he said it would have led to potential lawsuits from the state or campaigns, which would have required costly litigation.

Although the votes will not be counted, Cozzens has asked the clerk’s office to send affidavits to all 415 disqualified voters to give them a chance to indicate when and where they sent their ballots and include any other information they feel is important. Those letters will be sent out this week.

The ballot controversy prompted Rep. Rex Shipp (R-Cedar City) to seek a change in the law by filing a bill for the 2025 legislative session. His bill would require in-person voting and limit mail-in ballots to those requested by voters.

“This and similar bills have been proposed before and failed,” Shipp noted. “But I am confident that the issues in Iron County and Washington County during this primary will bring enough attention to election integrity to eventually pass the bill.”

Meanwhile, supporters of Republican gubernatorial candidate Phil Lyman attempted to delay the certification of votes during the vote count in Utah County until his election-related lawsuits against the campaign of incumbent Governor Spencer Cox were resolved.

Despite these efforts, the Utah County Commission voted unanimously to certify the primary election results.