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Riddle questions legality of Election, city responds

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Jesse Riddle Letter to the Editor:

On the night of November 2, when the first election results were posted, I called Mayor Johnson to congratulate him and wish him success in his second term. 

I concluded that the Lehi City 2021 election was irreparably defective. Our City Council set aside nearly 170 years of our one-person one-vote tradition by adopting Rank Choice Voting (“RCV”). 

In addition to canceling that time honored tradition, Lehi’s City Council, for the first time in the City’s history, also eliminated the primary election. That, in my opinion, is where the City’s legal issues began to go off the rails.

Lehi City Municipal Code 1-9-2 mandates that the City hold a primary system municipal election “whereby candidates for municipal office shall be nominated at a nonpartisan primary election”. Lehi Code also provides that the word “shall” means the act referenced is “mandatory”.

As no candidate was nominated, no candidate was qualified to appear on the November ballot. In my opinion, Lehi City violated its own law. Lehi City does not have the statutory authority to certify any person who seemingly prevailed in the General Election in light of the failure to follow the requirements under Lehi City Municipal Code 1-9-2, as no candidate in the General election was nominated.” State law also mandates that a City cannot certify a person elected when a person “declared elected was not eligible for the office at the time of the election”.

Mr. Ryan Wood, Lehi City attorney, disagreed with my assessment. Mr. Wood asserted that Utah law, as it pertains to RCV, requires that “an election officer of a participating municipality that will conduct a multi-candidate race may not conduct a primary election relating to that race.”

I disagree. Utah’s new RCV Election Law is an opt-in statute and was not intended to override Lehi City Code. I am also curious if anyone at the City read the Lehi City Municipal Code before their exuberant vote to adopt RCV and cancel the primary elections.

There should be, at a minimum, an internal memo discussing the legal reasoning for canceling the primary election mandated by Lehi City Municipal Code 1-9-2. Before advancing toward a radical and novel change in our elections, the City should also have a reasonable legal basis for their actions–and this too should be in writing.

City Response:

In his Letter to the Editor dated November 16, 2021, Jesse Riddle offers his legal opinion that Lehi’s 2021 municipalelection suffers from an “irreparable defect” because the Cityfailed to conduct a primary. I take no position as to Mr. Riddle’sopposition to rank choice voting (RCV) on policy grounds—that’s not my job. These are the kinds of policy issues that should be respectfully and vigorously debated in a healthy democracy. In fact, the public record shows that beginning in 2018, RCV was discussed no less than 10 times during city council meetings prior to the vote. But because Mr. Riddle’s missive goes beyond a policy debate about the merits of RCV, and strikes at the legality of such a choice, I felt the need to provide the voters of Lehi City a brief summary of the City’s legal position and to correct at least one aspect of the record asserted by Mr. Riddle. My hope is that doing so will reassure the voters that the choice to opt into RCV is supported by sound legal analysis.

Mr. Riddle asserts that for the first time in its history, Lehi City failed to conduct a primary in 2021. In reality, for most of its history Lehi City has nominated candidates either through the partisan convention method of nomination or by a nonpartisan method that required a certain number of voters to support the nomination. From 1937 until 1997, parties were allowed to conduct primaries at their conventions in order to nominate candidates until finally in 1997, the City adopted the nonpartisan primary election method that we are familiar with today. Additionally, when two or less candidates file for a municipal office, the primary is cancelled.

Lehi’s current method of nominating candidates is found in Lehi City Code Section 1-9-2 which reads as follows:

“The nonpartisan primary system for municipal elections in the city is adopted as authorized by Utah Code Annotated section 20A-9-404, whereby candidates for municipal office shall be nominated at a nonpartisan primary election. All provisions of the state election code as contained in Utah Code Annotated section 20A-1-101 et seq. which pertain to the nonpartisan primary system for municipal elections, are adopted and incorporated by reference.” (emphasis added).

This section of Lehi City Code adopts and incorporates the entire body of state statutory election law as it pertains to the nonpartisan primary system for municipal elections. One of these sections of state election code, 20A-4-602(5)(b) (Municipal Alternative Voting Methods Pilot Projects), states the following:

“Except as provided in Subsection 20A-4-603(9), an election officer of a participating municipality (i.e. participating in RCV)that will conduct a multi-candidate race under Subsection (5)(a) may not conduct a primary election related to that race.”(emphasis added). The City elected not to exercise the exceptionallowed under 603(9).

This section is clear—once Lehi City elects to participate in RCV, state law preempts the City from conducting a primaryelection.

Now, for argument’s sake, let’s assume that there’s something to Mr. Riddle’s argument that Lehi City missed something. Perhaps reasonable minds could differ on the interpretation of these statutes. Mr. Riddle is convinced that this omission results in an “irreparable defect” in the election process. I respectfully disagree. The body of election law is clear that an “irreparable defect” is one that changes the outcome. An example of anirreparable defect is leaving a candidate’s name off the ballot. In an election case, a judge is not going to undo the results because of a defect in the process—not unless there’s clear evidence that the defect changed the outcome. As the bedrock principle of democracy, elections are much too consequential for the law to require any less.

Finally, I want to reassure the voters that the issue of a primary election was carefully considered by the City. The City was well aware that if we opted into RCV, state law precluded conducting a primary. As referenced above, the public record is robust on this issue. It was discussed and debated numerous times in city council meetings prior to the vote. Lehi’s municipal election of 2021 was free, fair, and legal.

Respectfully,

Ryan Wood

Lehi City Attorney

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Daniel H Reese

    November 18, 2021 at 1:48 pm

    One person one vote is inherently undemocratic because of the spoiler effect, and promotes a two party system with lousy forced choices. Primaries often elect a fringe candidate because they are based on pluralities–anti-democratic. The goal of democracy is to act on the views of the people expressed thru their representatives. Ranked-choice is much more democratic by this definition.

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