Bob Bernick's Notebook: A Very Complicated Bill

Written by Bob Bernick on . Posted in Today At Utah Policy

I shouldn’t feel too bad, says state elections director Mark Thomas, if I don’t fully understand all the ins and outs of SB54, the “grand compromise” bill recently signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert and passed by the 2014 Legislature that changes Utah’s political party candidate nomination process.

 

“I’ve read the bill a number of times and I’m still learning some of the details,” says Thomas, who by any measure is an expert on Utah election law.

One new thing I learned this week – because Herbert told his monthly KUED Channel 7 news conference – is that if a political party under SB54 decides to be a “qualified” party (I’ll explain that later), then candidates can actually sign up to run a petition to get on his or her party’s primary ballot AND go through the party’s caucus/delegate/convention process.

“I think that many candidates – especially like the governor – will chose to go both routes,” said Thomas, whose office has briefed Herbert on the new law.

And being a smart political cookie, that, Herbert told media reporters this week, is exactly what he will do – should he decide to run for re-election in 2016.

Herbert, a Republican, told UtahPolicy in an interview the final day of the 2014 Legislature, that because of all the speculation about whether he will run again, he’s decided to move up his decision-making process to this summer.

Originally, Herbert said, he planned to announce his political future plans towards the end of this year. “I’m leaning towards running,” the governor said.

But retiring House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, among others, is looking at running for governor in 2016.

And to secure endorsements – and especially raise some big bucks – Herbert needs to move his decision-making up by about six months, the governor said.

“I think I would do both; if I run,” Herbert answered to a UtahPolicy question on KUED about whether he would choose the signature petition route, or the caucus/delegate/convention route – as outlined in what Thomas termed the very complicated SB54 alternatives.

Here’s Thomas’ breakdown:

-- A political party can decide to be a “registered” party, or its leaders can decide to be a “qualified” party. Or its leaders can decide to do neither.

A registered party would have to go through the direct primary process as outlined in the Count My Vote citizen initiative petition.

That would mean all candidates would gather 2 percent of their registered party members in the district they seek office. There would be no caucus/delegate/convention route.

A “qualified” political party could have a dual-track candidate nomination process: A candidate can pick to just go before his party convention delegates, and if he gets 40 percent of the delegate vote he goes to the primary. If he gets 60 percent of the delegate vote he eliminates all other challengers in the convention.

EXCEPT, if any of those convention challengers also went the candidate petition signature route, then even if that candidate failed to get 40 percent of the delegate vote, he would STILL be on the party’s primary ballot.

If a candidate didn’t want to appear before his state convention delegates, he could bypass the convention route entirely and just get his petition signatures and go on the primary ballot.
“I think I would get the 28,000 signatures (required for a statewide race),” said Herbert. That would show considerable grass roots support, he added. “That would be a good leg up” in any re-election.

But he would also seek support from his party delegates in the state GOP convention. That, also, would show support for his re-election.

Herbert had several serious intra-party challengers in his 2012 re-election race, but he eliminated all of them in the convention by getting more than 60 percent of the delegate vote.

Herbert guessed that many, if not most, serious candidates will take the dual track route starting in 2016, the first election SB54’s candidate rules apply.

SB54 says that in the case of a statewide race, starting Jan. 1 of the election year candidates would start collecting the 28,000 signatures from any registered voter. By the third Thursday in March those signatures would be handed in to the State Elections Office, said Thomas, which would verify their authenticity.

No political party could hold their state convention before April 1.

Thus, if a candidate went the signature petition route, he would have to complete his signature gathering before his party’s convention.

Should that candidate not get 40 percent of his delegate vote, he would NOT be eliminated by the convention, but would still get on his party’s primary ballot – although he might be politically-hurting because of his poor showing in his party’s convention.

If a candidate chose not to go the petition signature route, and he lost in the convention – he didn’t get at least 40 percent of the vote – then he would be out.

It would be too late to gather or turn in any petition signatures – since they were due the third Thursday in March and the convention couldn’t be held before April 1.

Confused?

Well, sometimes so is Thomas, who added that “there are technical problems” inside of SB54 that likely will have to be addressed by the 2015 Legislature, and fixed before the 2016 election cycle.

Still, Herbert likes SB54’s “dual track” candidate nomination process.

“Six or seven other states” have a similar process, said Herbert, and from what he’s heard about SB54 and how it would work, he thinks it is the best of several candidate nomination worlds.

“The arguments for (SB54) are persuasive,” said Herbert. And that is why he signed the bill into law several weeks ago.

UtahPolicy reported this week that the Count My Vote group – which raised more than $1 million before abandoning their petition as part of the SB54 “grand compromise”--  will reform itself in a few weeks: Renaming the new entity Friends of Count My Vote.

That new PAC or 501c(4) – the exact organizational form is not yet decided – will operate as a watchdog on SB54, to make sure the 2015 Legislature, or any near-future Legislature, will not renege on compromised reforms.

Friends of Count My Vote will also advance “voter participation” issues.

Those issues are yet to be articulated. But they could include same day voter registration, online voting, campaign contribution limits, and many more.

The Friends of Count My Vote group – with its impressive fund raising ability – could end up being a big stick held over the GOP-controlled Legislature to push through any number of election/campaign reforms in the decade to come.

Said Thomas: “It is logical that incumbent” officeholders “would do both – the petition and convention route.”

The incumbent could only gather signatures of registered voters who are qualified to vote in the party’s primary.

However, SB54 also requires that for any “qualified” party, independent voters must be allowed to vote in the party primary.

That means GOP candidates could gather signatures from registered Republicans and independents – thus making the petition-gathering process easier.

SB54 says that a state Senate candidate must gather 2,000 signatures – all from voters inside his district.

While a state House candidate must gather 1,000 signatures, all from within his district.

Those are relatively low bars to jump – a House candidate could likely get 1,000 signatures in a few days by standing outside an in-district shopping mall, grocery story or movie theater.

Senators would have a slightly more difficult challenge, but would also have a district three times as large as a House member to canvass for signatures.

In SB54 “basically you can fall into two buckets, depending on whether your party becomes a “registered” party or a “qualified” party,” said Thomas.

He gave UtahPolicy this short bill written summary, which is still a bit confusing.

CMV SB54 Comparison

At some point, said Thomas, the Utah Elections Office will put up on its web site a summary explaining SB54 and its candidate nomination alternatives in more detail.

But first Thomas and his staff have to sit down and figure out “this very complicated bill.”