SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4) — According to an independent review, an “unfortunate miscommunication” paired with monitoring from Mike Lee’s campaign led to a pro-Lee audience during his debate with Evan McMullin leading into the 2022 Midterm election.
The review, conducted by the Utah Debate Commission (UDC), investigated Utah Valley University‘s ticketing process after the audience disrupted the debate repeatedly and was “highly disproportionate in support of Senator Lee.”
According to Phil Cooper, who led the review, people affiliated with the Lee campaign monitored the online ticketing website for tickets to become available, leading to an “unbalanced” and “disruptive” crowd that violated the UDC’s stated audience policies.
“I found no evidence that the Lee campaign was ‘tipped off,’ received inappropriate inside information or received advance notice of the timing for ticket availability,” said Cooper. “Rather, it appears that they became aware from checking the ticketing site regularly. Their assertiveness and near-constant monitoring gave them an advantage given the unfortunate timing of Nielsen’s email communication.”
Cooper said in his report that tickets for the debate went on sale just before 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 4. Just before 2 p.m., Lee Lonsberry, Sen. Lee’s Communications Director, reserved two tickets, according to the review. Within 60 minutes, 93% of the tickets were reserved with the remaining 7% being reserved just before 4:30 p.m.
Just before 7 p.m. the same day, Erik Neilsen, the executive director of the Debate Commission, reportedly sent both the Lee and McMullin campaigns a notification the tickets were available, hours after they were already gone.
“The timing between the ticket site going live and the email from Nielsen to the respective campaigns appears to be an unfortunate miscommunication,” said Cooper in his review. “It appears that the Lee campaign became aware the ticketing site was live within 30 minutes of the site going live. Additionally, it appears that the McMullin campaign was not aware that tickets were available until the email from Nielsen approximately five hours later.”
Cooper said in his report that he could not verify from the reservation list that all the tickets reserved were connected to the Lee campaign. However, Cooper explained the intensity of the ticketing activity starting just before 2 p.m., along with the makeup of the audience and reporting from the Salt Lake Tribune, makes it appear as though most tickets were reserved by those affiliated with the Lee campaign.
As a result of the review, the UDC recognized existing guardrails for ticketing “are no longer adequate” for a peaceful debate, which will be addressed so future campaigns and universities operate equally.
Among these solutions, Cooper suggested reserved seating by allocating tickets to specific people and by establishing and communicating ticket availability ahead of time.