The official signature-gathering effort will start within weeks when the formal petition is submitted to the Utah Elections Office.
If more than 100,000 signatures of registered voters – in the proper numbers in the required number of counties – can be gathered within a year, the petition will be placed on the 2014 general election ballot for voter approval or rejection.
We don’t yet know the exact wording of the petition. But I gather it will be something along the lines spoken about last year, when the group of moderate/conservative Republicans behind the effort (yes, there will be some Democrats on board, also) were considering a speeded-up effort to make the 2012 ballot.
Most likely, if a candidate can gather a set percent of signatures of previously-voting citizens (say, 2 percent), he or she would automatically be placed on their party’s primary ballot for the office they seek, bypassing their party’s convention.
LaVarr Webb, UtahPolicy publisher and the guy who signs my paychecks, is one of the dozen or so folks working with this group – which doesn’t yet have an official name.
But I’ve advocated for change in Utah’s nominating process for years, long before I left the Deseret News and starting writing for UtahPolicy.
Here is what Webb tells me:
-- Within a few weeks the group will come up with various scenarios to consider. Timelines, strategies and money raising will then be laid out.
-- One alternative will be the signature gathering effort of a citizen initiative petition. Besides an alternative route to the primary, the group will look at establishing via initiative a direct primary – where no candidates would go to a convention, but all who otherwise qualify would go to the primary ballot. This is called a direct primary system, which a number of states have.
-- But group leaders will also look at taking a similar bill to the 2013 Legislature (which starts in two weeks) to see if lawmakers themselves will authorize an alternative route to a party primary ballot.
-- It’s also possible that with the more moderate 2012 pool of delegates in the GOP and Democratic parties, at their summer 2013 state conventions efforts could be made to have delegates modify their own internal candidate selection process.
For example, both parties could change their rules so that any candidate who gets 20 percent of the vote during a multi-candidate convention fight would go to the primary. That could lead to three or more candidates being on the primary ballot.
However, says Webb, considering all the possibilities, it’s still likely that the unnamed group will go forward with a citizen petition drive.
“It may cost $1 million or $1.5 million to get this on the ballot,” says Webb, who has been involved in some big and expensive campaigns before, especially the elections of former Gov. Mike Leavitt, a Webb friend. Webb, former political editor, city editor and managing editor of the Deseret News, served in Leavitt’s first two administrations as his policy advisor.
Utah lawmakers over several years have made it more difficult for anyone to get a measure on the ballot via the constitutionally-mandated initiative process. And it’s likely the group will hire people to gather signatures, thus raising the cost of the effort.
A number of people are involved – like Leavitt, University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics director Kirk Jowers; Webb; former Leavitt chief of staff (both in the Utah government and various federal bureaus) Rich McKeown; Utah Chamber of Commerce bigwig Natalie Gochnour, et al.
“We will be expanding the (leadership) group,” said Webb, “as we move forward.”
Since the Salt Lake Tribune first broke the story of the renewed effort this past week, “We have gotten a lot of good input and ideas,” said Webb. And some of those new voices will be part of the effort, he added.
A number of heavy-hitting Republicans and Democrats will likely come forward, as well, when the real public relations effort hits as (or after) the signatures are gathered.
Expect folks like former GOP Gov. Olene Walker to be on the petition train.
Many reform-minded Utahns like to point to the case of ex-U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett as the need for the change in the GOP candidate nominating process. Bennett was kicked out of office by the 2010 state GOP convention.
But I prefer to look to Walker.
She was getting job approval ratings above 80 percent in the spring of 2004 when, in the state Republican Party Convention, she was eliminated from office by maybe 1,000 state delegates. (There were more than 1,000 delegates at the convention, but a number supported Walker – and a swing of 1,000 votes would have advanced her to a primary.)
As you may recall, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and former Utah House Speaker Nolan Karras came out of that convention to face each other in a June closed GOP primary.
Now, those opposed to the upcoming initiative will rightly say that both Huntsman and Karras were sensible, reasonable Republicans and were (as Huntsman’s four-plus years in office showed) conservative politicians that could/would do a good job governing.
But times have changed in Utah and in the nation since then.
And I doubt that Huntsman could get a gubernatorial GOP nomination today via the caucus/convention process.
In any case, my point is this: Utahns were denied the right to vote on Walker as governor, even though 80 percent of them thought she was doing a good job.
A small number of right-wing state GOP delegates decided Walker’s fate, not voters at the ballot box.
So a popular governor was effectively removed from office against – apparently – the will of most Utahns.
Say what you will in defense of the caucus/convention system, that simply fact must be remembered.
It is, in my opinion, highly undemocratic – even criminally so – to allow such a small group of people to, in effect, make such an important decision for all the rest of us.
There will be any number of arguments against the petition – made mostly by Utah Republican Party officials and leaders.
But at the bottom of such anti-petition arguments will be this hard political truth: These inside party people are making important caucus/convention decisions about candidates now, and they don’t want to give up their elitist power.
When you look at the one-party nations today, like China and Russia (past and present), you see a few people deciding who really get top government posts – even if there are elections.
Can we really say that in Utah’s one-party situation we are that much different?
Yes, Utahns still get to vote on whether they are represented by a Republican, Democrat or some other party.
But often they DON’T get to pick who that Republican or Democrat is on the ballot.
Those decisions, more and more, are made by the insider party delegates, either in county or state conventions.
It would be good if party bosses reformed their own internal nomination processes – going, say, from 60 percent to 70 percent (or higher) of the delegate convention vote to make the primary ballot.
But that may not happen – or if promised could later be denied via votes of those same party delegates.
It’s time for Utah to open up its party candidate nomination process.
The upcoming petition may not be a perfect solution.
But it’s a good start.