SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker who lost in June's GOP primary by nine votes filed a lawsuit Monday against state and county elections officials, asking the Utah Supreme Court to allow about 100 ballots that were disqualified in his race to be counted.
Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, lost to Morgan County Commissioner Logan Wilde in the House District 53 race with 2,483 votes to Wilde's 2,492 votes after calling for a recount.
The veteran lawmaker filed the suit against Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the Utah State Board of Canvassers, and clerks in counties that make up his district, claiming that the ballots were "improperly disqualified."
Earlier this month, state elections officials decided not to count about 70 ballots in Brown's race because they were postmarked on June 28, the day of the primary election, not by the June 27 due date. Thirty-two were disqualified because their signatures did not match the voters' signatures in clerks' databases.
By state law, vote-by-mail ballots must be postmarked before the day of an election, and voters' signatures must be verified.
However, Brown said not all rural voters understand that even though they drop their ballots in the mail on the day before the election, their ballots may not be postmarked until the next day because it can take at least another day to reach the Salt Lake City Post Office, where they are officially postmarked.
Unless the court decides otherwise, those ballots will remain unopened and uncounted.
"I have no idea whether these uncounted votes are going to change the outcome of the election, but I tell you, what I think is wrong is disenfranchising rural Utah because of these postmark problems," Brown said.
State Elections Director Mark Thomas said elections officials disqualified those ballots according to state law because "it's impossible to know" whether the ballots were in fact dropped in the mail before midnight on the day before the primary election.
As for the 32 ballots disqualified over signatures, Brown said clerks "may not have fully complied with the statute" requiring voters to be individually contacted in case their signatures can't be verified.
Thomas said clerks have told him they attempted to contact all voters whose signatures couldn't be verified.
"When it comes to counting ballots and the election process, we try in every regard to count each and every ballot that we can to the extent that is allowed by law," he said. "There just wasn't a way that we could see under the law to count these ballots."
Earlier this month, the lieutenant governor issued a statement acknowledging postmark issues and how the deadline can be confusing to voters. Cox called on clerks, postal officials and state lawmakers to find a solution to ensure fewer ballots are disqualified due to missed postmark deadlines.
"To have people submit a ballot postmarked a day late in such a close race, man it's tough to say no," Thomas said. "But at the same time, we have to follow the laws that are on the books."
Thomas said elections officials "don't have any issue" with Brown's decision to go to the courts to resolve the matter, but he hopes it's resolved quickly because the November ballot must be certified by Aug. 31.
If those ballots are ultimately counted, Brown could still possibly take Wilde's place on the ballot against Democrat Cole Capener.
The Utah Supreme Court has given elections officials until Aug. 23 to respond to Brown's complaint.
One of Brown's colleague in the Utah House, Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, is among the attorneys representing him in the case.
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