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Utah Business

Votes count

When nearly 160 million votes are cast nationwide, it might be hard to feel like a single vote can make a difference in an election. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that one vote can, indeed, make a difference. 

In Utah, many elections were decided by a slim margin. Candidates in these tight races were on a roller coaster during the weeks-long process of counting ballots. One day they would be in the lead, only to watch their margin shrink (or disappear completely) as additional ballots were tallied the next. Candidates and their families experienced highs and lows as the process played out. If you have ever watched Olympic ice skaters receive their scores immediately following a performance and sympathized with them as the camera zooms in to capture their jubilation or defeat, you get a sense of what political candidates feel like as they and their families watch the vote tallies come in day after day. Eventually, some felt the thrill of victory while others felt the agony of defeat.

Utah’s fourth Congressional District race was the state’s most mercurial, with the leading candidate changing hourly as votes were tallied. Incumbent Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, finished election night with a 7,765-vote lead over Republican challenger Burgess Owens. However, as additional ballots were counted over the next few weeks, McAdams saw his lead shrink further and further until he eventually lost the election to Owens by 3,765 votes. 

As with elections at the federal level, Utah’s legislature saw several races with razor-thin margins that were decided only at the final canvass. For those unfamiliar with their state legislator, post-election is the perfect time to get to know them. The state legislature a body that passes laws and regulations that can immediately impact on your everyday life, from education funding, to sales tax, to public health issues.  

In Salt Lake County, two legislative races were decided by less than 100 votes. In Taylorsville, Republican Rep. Jim Dunnigan won by only 83 votes over Democratic challenger Lynette Wendel. Dunnigan has a long history at the Capitol. A former Majority Leader for the Republicans in the Utah House, he currently chairs the important Business and Labor Committee. A race as close as this serves as a reminder to state house politicos that while titles inside the Capitol may mean something to lobbyists or other legislators, elected officials must serve and remain close to their constituents to ensure reelection. 

Another close Utah race involved Republican incumbent House member Steve Eliason in the contest against Democrat Wendy Davis. Eliason, who lives in Sandy, won this election by a mere 78 votes. Eliason has championed mental health issues during his time of service and played a key role in establishing a nationwide three-digit emergency number to aid in suicide prevention (that number is 988). Despite his accomplishments on a broader stage, Eliason narrowly avoided defeat—a reminder his local constituents are paying attention. 

In yet another close race, a legislator who has served for nearly two decades was unseated. Democrat Ashlee Mathews defeated Republican Rep. Eric Hutchings in the seat that largely covers the Kearns area in Salt Lake County. Mathews won by 392 votes in the final count and gave Democrats a new seat in the House of Representatives, something that doesn’t happen often in Utah. While the Republicans will still maintain super-majority control of the state legislature, this Democratic win reinforces the message that every vote matters and every voice in the state should be heard. 

As government affairs professionals, we have watched and analyzed elections for years. We need to know who won, why they won, and details of the winner’s agenda. After years of watching Utah elections, we can predict which districts will be close, which districts will likely be undecided for several days as votes are tallied, and what the canvass process looks like as county clerks document the election. We are confident in Utah’s election process. We commend the government workers who dedicated countless hours over the past six months to ensure Utah had a fair and safe election, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Utahns can be proud of how the election was handled in our state and can be confident in the election results. 

Even if your political ideology doesn’t align with your area’s, your vote and your voice are essential in elections. Candidates who won on close margins will want to know why they didn’t receive a stronger vote of confidence and will better served by listening more closely to their constituents. Even if you are in the minority, your vote matters. One day yours could be among the handful of votes that pushes the candidate you support over the finish line to win an election. 

This publication is designed to provide general information on pertinent legal topics. The statements made are provided for educational purposes only. They do not constitute legal or financial advice nor do they necessarily reflect the views of Holland & Hart LLP or any of its attorneys other than the author(s). This publication is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship between you and Holland & Hart LLP. Substantive changes in the law subsequent to the date of this publication might affect the analysis or commentary. Similarly, the analysis may differ depending on the jurisdiction or circumstances. If you have specific questions as to the application of the law to your activities, you should seek the advice of your legal counsel.

Kate Bradshaw is director of government affairs at Holland & Hart. Bradshaw provides clients with comprehensive governmental affairs services focusing on legislative, regulatory, executive office, and campaign strategies. Billy Hesterman is a government affairs specialist at Holland & Hart. Hesterman focuses on communication, lobbying, and advocacy that yield strong results for clients across numerous industries.