The special election for Cache County Clerk/Auditor is one week away — and the most recent example of a midterm vacancy circumventing a general election vote.
According to state code, if a county elected official’s seat is vacant after the second Friday in March but more than 75 days before an election, the position goes on the ballot in November. If less than 75 days away from Election Day, it’s up to the party of the last elected official to submit the name of a potential replacement to the council for approval.
Republican Jill Zollinger announced her midterm retirement on Aug. 15 — 81 days before the election — but chose Aug. 31 as her last day in office, which added her name to the growing list of officials to quit months if not weeks before an election.
“It’s pretty ridiculous that she retires mid-term, but it’s a tactic used here a lot,” said Danny Beus, chair of the Cache Democrats. “It undermines the will of the people, and it’s shady things like this that make people hate, or not trust, politicians or the political process.”
The move has drawn similar criticism from within the Republican party, such as from Karl Brown of Nibley, since the special election to replace House District 5 Rep. Curt Webb in 2018.
“I just don't believe in backdoor shenanigans to maintain some kind of upper hand on the other party,” Brown said. “And I don't know who finagled this one, but someone did.”
State code to strategy
When Webb resigned with three months left in his term before the general election, code dictated the need for an immediate replacement of the seat through the party liaison because he was a state legislator.
Webb had announced late 2017 that he intended to retire at the end of his term, but resigned with three months to go to serve as a Latter-day Saint senior missionary, supervising dorm assistants at church-owned BYU-Hawaii.
By Webb's 2018 retirement, Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, had already been campaigning for the position and was going to be the only name considered until Brown pulled a Hail Mary to file for consideration four days before deadline.
In the end, Brown secured two votes from the party’s 86 delegates who participated, but he wasn’t surprised — he just wanted to draw attention to the code he deems dishonorable.
“They're doing something that they shouldn't be,” he said. “They’re my party, and that's why I felt responsible to do this.”
He said this kind of special election, though in accordance with state election code, can be exploited to prevent accurate representation from voters.
“Because we know the incumbents almost always get elected,” he said. “Let America get back to having people decide things through electoral voting, and I think we could do that in Cache Valley.”
Snider, who did not return a request for comment, secured more than 75% of the vote in the election one month after his appointment.
Cache GOP Chair Chris Booth said this year has already bucked tradition as two longstanding incumbents were unseated in June’s primaries, but denied discussing the midterm retirement with Zollinger or others as a strategy to keep party control of the position.
“It was all kind of a shock to everybody,” Booth said. “We expected her to finish her term and this to be her last term. We were not expecting her to retire with two-plus years left in her term.”
In August, Zollinger told The Herald Journal the election had nothing to do with her decision. But an individual who wished to remain anonymous questioned whether someone who was the local expert on election law would not have been aware of the consequences — especially considering her history with the position.
History repeating itself?
Zollinger was the chief deputy clerk under Stephen Erickson until he died 18 months before his term was set to end. His death resulted in a similar special convention for the party’s County Central Committee members (composed of party officers, committee members, elected county officials and precinct chairs) in the area.
After the special committee elections, the local Republican Party submitted three names to the Cache County Council to determine who’d serve as replacement until the next general election — including Zollinger’s.
Zollinger was not chosen, and she resigned as chief deputy clerk when the council appointed Daryl Downs for the role.
She then defeated the county’s appointment in the primary election nearly one year later.
Booth is hoping to eliminate a similar dilemma by doing rounds of voting on Sept. 19 to determine one winner to be submitted to the County Council, which will then have five days to make the appointment.
Kim Gardner is serving as the interim-County Clerk/Auditor and has filed with the party for the special election. But she said she doesn’t love the process.
“We have to follow the code with everything that we do; the marriage licenses, voting, contracts, agreements and resolutions,” she said. “That's the way the law reads right now, and so that’s the course that the party has taken, and I don't know if that would change.”
While Beus acknowledged the party is following code, he said “it does undermine the election” to have a select few delegates choosing who will fill the seat of a public official — especially for a county clerk.
“This is a position with a substantial salary, as well,” Beus said, “so let the people choose who they want their tax money to go to, not political parties.”
What’s at stake
Gardner, who has been chief deputy clerk for 19 of her 27 years at the office, said this year could be a tough transition at the Clerk's Office if a similar upset to 1999 were to occur — when an outsider was appointed over someone with experience running elections — as it’s a presidential election year and most local positions have challengers.
“You can't learn elections in four to six weeks,” Gardner said. “It takes years. And every year the legislature comes up with new bills, new laws for elections, so it changes constantly.”
Booth said while he hasn’t heard any similar concerns with the process, “the timing is not ideal.”
“We’ve got some experience with this, in the state and the local party,” he said. “I just hope this trend doesn't continue into 2022. I don't want to have another midterm election.”
In addition to Gardner, Dianna Shaeffer (currently acting as Cache County's chief deputy auditor) and Jess Bradfield (of Logan Municipal Council) will round out the candidates for Zollinger's position. Though voting at the special election, starting 9 a.m. Sept. 19, will be among up to 300 delegates forming the committee, the public is welcome to attend.