This Op-Ed by Action Utah Policy Consultant Angela McGuire originally appeared in the Deseret News and can be read in its entirety here.
The State Legislature had a productive interim week culminating in a special session last Thursday with the passage of 20 bills. Most bills focused on COVID-19 impacts throughout the state, making adjustments to aid measures and response.
Two major bills that passed during the session (HB6002 and SB6009) were released Thursday morning, which gave constituents little time to review the bill language and allowed no opportunity for public comment. Although both bills appear altruistic, many Utahns are already excluded from the protections and aid they offer.
According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, 40,000 Utah tenants reported that they had “no confidence” they could pay the upcoming rent. The courts have seen an increase in eviction filings since the expiration of the CARES Act in July. Many of those tenants have already lost their homes or have an upcoming date to vacate. Although the courts are holding telephonic hearings, there remains barriers to access for some of Utah’s most vulnerable residents.
In fiscal year 2020, 94% of defendants in unlawful detainer hearings were unrepresented, according to a memo obtained from the Utah Administrative Office of the Court on Aug. 11. Many of those defendants did not respond to the notices within the three-day period and received a default judgment, which entitles plaintiffs to treble damages, late fees and possible collection fees and garnished wages from defendants’ paychecks. For those Utahns who have already received an eviction notice or lease termination this summer, those funds set aside by the legislature are too late.
Families are now frantically searching for shelter while students are returning to classes, with payment schedules for owed late fees and past rent quickly approaching. Eviction and debt collection records make it much more difficult to secure future housing, but the immediate consequences could prevent many from casting a ballot in the upcoming election.
Utah serves as an active model for our efficient and accurate mail-in voting practices. One major caveat remains: If you no longer live at the address listed on your voter registration, you will likely not receive your ballot. Eligible voters must submit a new voter registration or update records with their county clerk 11 calendar days prior to the election. The alternative method permits all eligible residents to cast a provisional ballot at any early voting location or on election day. Voters must bring a valid ID and proof of residency, which again may present barriers to access for vulnerable populations. Without timely documentation, in-person voter registration will be the only option for many; having to decide between exposure to possible health risk or not casting a ballot at all.
Previous local election data has revealed that of eligible voters, the majority participate through mail. It is imperative that this election remains a major priority for all Utahns, and that access to safe and efficient in-person polling location decisions within counties are made with urgency. Tenants across the state need to be diligent during this time: If losing your home isn’t stressful and traumatic enough, don’t lose your ability to participate in our democratic process and make your needs known to those who represent you.