Utah lawmaker wants to overturn ban on Election Day wine, liquor sales

SALT LAKE CITY — Wine with lunch? Not on Election Day in Utah.

But if Sen. Scott McCoy can persuade his colleagues, this will be Utah’s last election where wine and liquor can’t be served in commercial establishments while polls are open.

“This whole notion of not being able to drink on the day you’re voting is just archaic,” said McCoy, D-Salt Lake City. “You can get completely liquored up at home and go vote if you want to, or you can have a glass of wine at home while you fill out at an absentee ballot, yet on Election Day you can’t walk into a restaurant at noon and have a glass of wine. It seems there’s a bizarre inconsistency.”

The ban on the sale of liquor, wine and full-strength beer in restaurants and bars while polls are open on Election Day is one of several liquor laws McCoy says have no rational basis. Polls in many counties don’t close until 8 p.m.

Utah has some of the most restrictive liquor laws in the nation. Many people consider the laws to be a tourist deterrent, particularly the law requiring a paid membership to enter any bar that serves liquor.

Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman has said he’d like to see the state’s liquor laws loosened, as have members of the state board of tourism. But Huntsman said earlier this year he wouldn’t seek any changes during his first term in his office, which ends next year.

Liquor law changes are challenging in Utah.

Most of the state’s residents and members of the Legislature are Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prohibits its members from drinking alcohol, consequently trying to make any liquor law changes without its blessing dooms most legislation.

The Mormon church opposed any loosening of Utah’s alcohol laws for the 2002 Winter Olympics and many lawmakers agreed, although some temporary changes were made to city ordinances for the Games.

Bobbie Coray, a recent appointee to the state liquor commission and who does not drink for religious reasons, proposed hiding liquor bottles from view in restaurants so those who don’t drink aren’t offended by the sight of them.

McCoy acknowledges revising any liquor law will be difficult.

“It’s the one issue where … the stars have to align, basically,” he said. “This state and our culture has always been very, very concerned with any kind of idea or perception that the state promotes liquor.”

McCoy said his proposal may have to be part of a package of liquor law revisions to have a shot at passing and that might not occur this year.

“I think there are some who are just reluctant to open that can of worms unless there is a kind of broader effort,” he said.

Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said changes to any liquor laws would have to be vetted by multiple interest groups — including the Mormon church.

“They all have their own views as to what needs to happen in alcoholic beverage control, and they differ,” he said “I think there’s going to be a couple places where liquor laws are revisited and (McCoy) could probably make a case that this particular one would be part of a package of changes.”

The Utah Restaurant Association says ending the Election Day liquor prohibition hasn’t been a hot issue among its members, but the group would favor repeal.

“Of course restaurants would prefer to be able to sell their products every day at appropriate times. And I don’t know how or why elections are affected by alcohol,” said association President Melva Sine.

State liquor stores, the only place to buy liquor, wine and full-strength beer in Utah, are closed on Election Day. The same is true in many other states.

McCoy said the law was originally put in place when taverns were used as polling locations. He said that in the modern era with locations set aside for polling, early voting and absentee voting, the law does more harm than good.

“Chances are on a Tuesday you’re not heading out to a private club to have a drink before the polls close anyway,” McCoy said. “The restaurant is open for business all day. It’s not completely unheard of that someone might have a glass of wine for lunch, it’s certainly not unthinkable to do that at dinner. And most are likely in Utah to have dinner before 8.”

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