State elections office reprimands Utah County Clerk for filling in candidate filing form

Feb 12, 2024, 6:33 PM | Updated: Feb 15, 2024, 2:02 pm

PROVO — The state elections office has chastised the Utah County Clerk for filling in the party affiliation of a candidate’s filing form after the state-imposed filing deadline had passed.

Utah County Clerk Aaron Davidson admitted he did this but said the candidate’s intent to run as a Republican was obvious.

“I did fill in the line, and I initialed it. I wasn’t trying to hide anything. It had been verbally confirmed. The intent was known,” Davidson told KSL TV in an interview last month.

The form in question

The form in question is for Michael Cook’s candidacy. He’s running for Senate District 25, the seat currently held by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork. McKell is also running for the seat again.

The form shows that Cook’s party is filled in as “Republican” and initialed by Davidson, but that the handwriting is different. Davidson time stamped and initialed it at 5:20 p.m. on Jan. 8, just 20 minutes after the filing deadline for candidates had closed.

There are two other errors with the form, including Cook writing “Rep 25” instead of “Senate 25,” and there was no contact information from Cook on his original form.

Davidson said when Cook came into file on the last day of the filing period, he filled out a conflict-of-interest form with the state, where he confirmed his party affiliation.

“He confirmed to the state that he was running as a Republican,” Davidson said.

But Davidson says as the clock approached the deadline of 5 p.m., the office got busy, and Cook left with several errors on his form, including a blank party affiliation line.

“So we decided instead of asking him to come back after five, we would call him,” Davidson said.

The form that Cook initially filed out and that Davidson edited further. (KSL TV)

Davidson said Cook was on speaker while several other staffers listened, and Cook agreed to let Davidson write in his party affiliation as Republican.

Davidson said the decision to fill in the form was because he was confident in Cook’s intent.

“We adjudicate ballots all the time for voters. If the intent is known, we can (fill in) who they are voting for. If the intent isn’t known, we have to spoil that ballot. It’s we felt that it was the same thing here,” Davidson said.

‘Never amend or modify’ an election form

But in emails and a letter obtained by KSL TV, the state elections office said Davidson should not have done that.

Davidson was sent a letter by Ryan Cowley, Utah’s director of elections, that reads in part, “The only exception for amending a declaration of candidacy is in response to an objection filed under (state law). Such an amendment may only be made by a candidate.”

The letter continues, “In this instance, no such objection was made to the candidate’s leaving the party affiliation space blank on the declaration of candidacy form … I do not believe that leaving the party affiliation space blank is an objection that the clerk should sustain.”

The letter reads that Davidson should “never amend or modify a declaration of candidacy form, except as may be expressly allowed under the statute. Any modifications or amendments must be made by the candidate, in person, and done before the filing period ends.”

Cowley's letter to Davidson about these events.

Cowley’s letter to Davidson about these events. (KSL TV)

Emails between Davidson and Cowley further show that Cowley approved of Davidson fixing Cook’s seat, and his contact information, but he questioned Davidson on why he filled in the party affiliation.

“On Friday night (Jan. 12), I became aware that you personally amended the form for the candidate 20 minutes after the filing period to include the candidate’s party,” Cowley wrote. “I understand that this was left blank by the candidate and that he left your office after the filing period closed at 5 p.m. Can you please explain to me what the process was for amending that form and what section of code you relied upon to make the amendment?”

Davidson’s reply is the same story he told KSL TV in an interview. He said that his staff did not correctly check Cook’s form before he left the office, but that they called Cook and asked his permission to fill in the form.

“With all of the commotion that was happening at the last moments of filings, a good final review of Mr. Cook’s filing with my staff did not happen as it should have as everyone was trying to get everything wrapped up so they could leave,” Davidson wrote back to Cowley. “With that information, we felt that he had expressed his intent while he was here, and after he expressed his intent over the phone, we had a total of five people that had heard his expressed intent. I asked if I could write in Republican for him on his form, and he agreed.”

Davidson asked if Cook could switch to a convention candidate

There’s also another part of the form Cook didn’t fill in. That was the convention route to the ballot.

His form shows that he checked signatures only. Utah law allows candidates to check a box whether they will gather signatures, get on the ballot via the caucus/convention path, or both.

Those emails further show that Davidson asked Cowley whether Cook could change that. Cowley said no.

“On a phone call the morning after the filing period closed, you asked if the candidate would be allowed to amend the nomination path they had selected while making these changes, and I said no, they cannot because that is what they chose at the time of filing and could not be altered,” Cowley wrote.

“You also asked if he could still go to the convention and I said parties control their conventions, but that the form could not be altered. The candidate chose the signature-only path, and I don’t think an alternative path exists for a candidate to get on the ballot outside of what they selected on their filing form,” Cowley added.

Davidson wrote back that he agreed.

“I understood from what you told me that the parties control their conventions, so Mr. Cook could appeal to the Utah County Republican Party to see if they would allow him to participate in their convention process even though he selected on his Declaration of Candidacy that he would go the signature gathering route only. Ultimately, that is an issue between Mr. Cook and the Utah County Republican Party,” Davidson wrote to Cowley.

And Cook did indeed go to the Utah County Republican party to appeal his filing. Sources inside that meeting confirmed Cook was allowed to be a convention candidate. However, because the state controls the candidate filings, Cook could only qualify for the ballot via signatures even if approved by the party.

Davidson explained that he thought Cook didn’t realize he was supposed to check the dual path box.

“He had been gathering signatures (for other ballot measures). So, he’s very comfortable with gathering signatures. And so he just checked that box because that’s what he knew,” Davidson said.

Davidson also confirmed he went to that Utah County Republican Party central committee meeting and spoke up when he said people were giving information about Cook, who didn’t have the “full story.”

“And so I gave the background, and then someone asked me if I approved or disapproved of him being, and I said, I’m remaining neutral. So when the vote was taken, I did not vote,” Davidson said.

Ultimately, Davidson said he doesn’t think he violated state law by changing Cook’s candidate filing – even accidentally.

“I don’t think it violated state code because we knew the intent,” he said.

McKell declined to comment. Cook did not respond to emails for comment.

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State elections office reprimands Utah County Clerk for filling in candidate filing form