Utah Democrats are trying to replace a Utah Senate candidate on the ballot, but they don’t have a legal reason for the change

Utah Democrats are trying a last-ditch effort to replace a candidate in a Utah Senate race who withdrew earlier this year. The problem is, they’re relying on dubious reasoning to do so.

Abbey Wright withdrew from the SD9 race in May, citing a medical condition with a family member that prevented her from continuing in the race. Wright confirmed the medical issue was with a family member when contacted by UtahPolicy.com in May. That’s important.

State law only allows the replacement of a candidate on the ballot if they are suffering from a medical condition (not a family member) or they die.

SD9 is the seat being vacated by Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who is retiring at the end of the year. Wright withdrew from the race on May 18th, shortly after winning the Democratic nomination. That left Republican Kirk Cullimore and United Utah Party candidate Alexander Castagno on the ballot.

On May 21, Wright submitted a letter to Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen from a physicians assistant that said Wright was “working through some health issues currently that will make it very difficult for Abigail to pursue running for office.”  

Wright followed up with a letter on June 4 clarifying that although the primary medical condition is with a family member, Wright is “experiencing a debilitating mental condition” for which she is receiving care.

Salt Lake County Democrats had planned on nominating a replacement for Wright at their regularly scheduled central committee meeting on Wednesday night, but Republican officials raised several objections to that plan.

In a letter to Swensen and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah GOP Chair Rob Anderson, and his Salt Lake County counterpart, Scott Miller, say the documentation provided for justifying a replacement for Wright in the race are not sufficient.

They point out that the original letter about Wright’s condition “indicates the family, not the candidate are having health issues.” The letter says Utah law is clear that is not a valid reason for picking a replacement. They also point out the letter is from a physician’s assistant, not an MD, as required by Utah law.

Republicans also take issue with the follow-up clarification from Wright on June 4. They say that explanation is also insufficient for choosing a replacement for several reasons, most notably that it is not from a doctor.

Salt Lake County Democrats chose Monica Zoltanski as a preliminary replacement for Wright on Wednesday night in case they are allowed to replace her on the ballot. Zoltanski lost the SD9 nomination to Wright at the county convention earlier this year.

Salt Lake County Democratic Chair Quang Dang told UtahPolicy.com that Wright was in the process of obtaining a letter from an M.D. about her condition to satisfy the requirements for replacement in Utah code. 

Republicans say Democrats aren’t playing fair by trying to replace Wright this late in the game. 

“Allowing this vacancy to exist for three months without notifying other candidates in the race that there is an attempt to fill it puts all other candidates at a serious disadvantage strategically and financially. Furthermore, it leads to questions about transparency and fairness in elections and could ultimately cause voters to distrust the process entirely,” wrote Anderson and Miller in their complaint.

State elections officials agree with the GOP. In a letter to the Democratic and Republican parties Thursday afternoon, the state said the reasons for withdrawal submitted so far have been insufficient to warrant a replacement under the law.

“Our office does not believe that any letters submitted to this point by Ms. Wright or medical professionals on her behalf meet the requirements,” it read. “If a political party attempts to fill a candidate vacancy when legal requirements are not met, any candidate who declares candidacy for the vacancy could be challenged.”

If Wright is successful in obtaining a letter from a physician detailing the medical condition that precludes her from running, Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson says he will indeed challenge any replacement based upon Thursday’s letter from the Lt. Governor’s office.

It’s unclear if the Salt Lake County or Utah Democratic parties plan to move forward with trying to forward Zoltanski as a replacement candidate by the end of the month when ballots are printed for November’s election.