Begrudgingly. Hesitantly. Squeamishly. That’s the way forward for many Utah lawmakers as they consider the new version of SB 54, which crafts a compromise to keep Utah’s caucus system while also allowing a direct primary path to the ballot.
The House Government Operations Committee debated the latest iteration of Sen. Curt Bramble’s SB 54 for more than an hour Monday morning.
Bramble says he favors the compromise position because of the claim by Count My Vote that they’ve already collected 100,000 signatures in their effort to get an initiative on the ballot.
“I don’t play poker, but I’ve watched it on TV,” he said. “CMV says they have over 100,000 signatures. Do they have what they need (to get on the ballot)? I don’t know. My own personal belief is that if the initiative goes forward, they would get the signatures they need and it would pass.”
The compromise contained in SB 54 preserves the caucus system while also providing for an alternative path to the ballot for candidates who would rather gather signatures to qualify.
Rural lawmakers on the committee, like Rep. Mike Noel (R-Kanab), worried doing away with the caucus system would disproportionately hurt non-urban areas.
“I hope we overturn this,” said Noel. “The scariest voter to me is a low information voter, and that’s what we are turning the system over to with this. I think the whole thing stinks.”
In fact, Noel literally held his nose while casting a “yes” vote to move the bill to the House floor.
Another rural lawmaker, Rep. John Mathis (R-Vernal), says adding a direct primary will mute the voice of smaller communities.
“I don’t see this helping us at all. We are the ones that are going to be hurt in this whole process,” he said while explaining that his vote in favor of the bill is simply because of the House GOP caucus position to move it forward. “My voting for this is in opposition to the very people who sent me here. I need to talk more with them before I decide ultimately what to do.”
Others opposed to the compromise worried it allowed the state to trample on the First Amendment protections of free association. Former Rep. Chris Herrod says the legislature should stand fast against CMV.
“Sometimes compromise is absurd,” he said. “Some of the votes I regret most were because of a compromise. This compromise is between CMV and the legislature, but not the parties. This is taking away our fundamental right of free association.”
Rep. Kraig Powell, who was considering sponsoring legislation this year to create a similar dual-track system to the ballot, blamed the parties for being unwilling to compromise when Count My Vote first approached the parties.
“The majority of the Republican State Central Committee caused this,” he said scoldingly. “Your chairman warned you that this iceberg was coming, and it has come true. We are witnessing the ⅔ of the party outvoting the ⅓ who didn’t want compromise.”
Powell also had a warning for those who might work to undo the deal.
“There is now talk of lawsuits against this compromise. I dare you to try it. Republican voters will oppose you and reject you.”
The compromise bill passed out of committee unanimously and now heads to the House for debate.