GOP Leaders May Agree to Primary Run-Off Election as Solution to SB54 Plurality Issue

Utah State CapitolA compromise is in the works, UtahPolicy is told, that could settle the final sticking point over SB54 – what to do if no one wins a majority in a multi-candidate primary election.

Sources tell UtahPolicy that the Utah Republican Party might – just might – agree to a special runoff election between the top two primary vote-getters.

And in those cases – probably fairly rare – the runoff would be conducted by county clerks in affected counties – overseen by the state Elections Office.

In other words, the same process for normal primary and general elections now.

A catch – to save money on a runoff, all ballots would be mail-in only – no voting in precincts, at schools or other public places, at all.

That would avoid one of the main complaints about a primary runoff the election – the estimated $3 million cost to county taxpayers statewide.

But even as a compromise is being considered, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen tells UtahPolicy that federal law requires 45 days before any election date to get oversea ballots to military and other state residents living abroad.

So the current late-June primary election date would have to be moved up to late May to accommodate the POSSIBILITY of a run-off primary later in the summer.

In any case, Utah GOP chairman James Evans has told UtahPolicy previously that a recent meeting of his party’s state Central Committee approved a resolution calling for a “satisfactory” solution to the plurality issue associated with SB54.

There is now no preferred “satisfactory” solution – although that could come in anOct. 6or a February 20017 CC meeting.

With “satisfactory” left undefined by the party bosses, if GOP legislative leaders can find a solution to SB54/plurality that also satisfies the Count My Vote folks, then maybe the state Republican Party can be pressured to accept a mail-in run off primary election.

And Count My Vote leaders – some of the more well-heeled and influential Utahns among us – will not run their all-primary, all-candidate-petition citizen initiative in 2018.

There are some big “ifs” in this possible compromise.

And we’ll see what comes to pass in the 2017 general session, which startsJan. 23.

But already Evans has in his pocket letters from GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and Republican House Speaker Greg Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser promising that the next Legislature will at least take up the SB54 plurality issue.

There is a whole lot of history – much of it unpleasant – around SB54, passed in the 2014 Legislature to head off the Count My Vote citizen initiative petition.

Short version: The state GOP, with many rank-and-file Republicans disagreeing with the party bosses – filed suit in federal court and before the Utah Supreme Court over SB54.

The party lost twice in federal court and once before the state high court.

“Claiming victory in spite of all losses” – as one Capitol Hill wag put it – Evans’ Central Committee decided not to appeal the federal case to the 10thCircuit Court of Appeals if the Legislature would “satisfactory” solve what to do if no one wins a multi-candidate primary election.

One idea, twice rejected by lawmakers, is to throw back to party delegates any non-majority primary result.

That would violate one of the main CMV goals – that a candidate can gather signatures and bypass party delegates and go directly to primary voters.

CMV and others argue that Democratic delegates are more liberal and Republican delegates more conservative than their rank-and-file party members.

Since many elections almost automatically go to GOP candidates (no U.S. Senate Democratic wins since 1970, no gubernatorial wins since 1980), that results in GOP officeholders more conservative than party members as a whole – certainly more conservative than Utahns as a whole, and statewide officeholders are supposed to represent all their constituents, not just Republicans.

Rich McKeown, co-president of Count My Vote, told UtahPolicyon Wednesdaythat any plurality solution that allows voters to decide on candidates is preferred over a solution throwing the decision back to party delegates.

“I have heard several things (solutions) bantered around,” said McKeown. “Count My Vote was about voter participation, that is key. And it is reasonable to let voters decide any plurality, or runoff.”

SB54 was in place this election cycle. And there was no problem in the primary elections – either party. The primary winner had more than 50 percent of the vote in every case.

So McKeown and other CMV supporters see the state GOP bosses’ plurality concerns as a red herring – there really is no plurality problem.

Still, UtahPolicy is told that CMV leaders are holding the big stick of another initiative in 2018 should the GOP-controlled Legislature give party delegates any final say over a primary election.

Two goals that could be achieved via a runoff primary:

— First, voters would have the say, not party bosses. And am all-mail-in runoff could increase voter participation – since every eligible voter would get a ballot in the mail.

— Second, cost. The regular primary cost around $3 million statewide, taxpayers in each 29 counties picking up the cost.

Swensen said an all-mail-in primary runoff would save money in her county, and cost around $350,000 in the state’s largest county (40 percent of the state’s population).

For a closed GOP primary in Salt Lake County more than 180,000 ballots would have to go out. (The state GOP holds closed primaries, only registered Republicans can vote.)

For a Democratic mail-in primary runoff ballots would have to sent to Democrats and political independents – Democrats hold open primaries, only those registered in some other party can’t vote in it.

The current end-of-June primary date “wouldn’t give us enough time to meet the 45-day requirement and still hold a runoff” before the end of summer, she said.

It is unlikely that Republican leaders would want to wait that long to name their party’s nominee in major races, like governor or U.S. Senate or U.S. House.

So to accommodate an early summer primary runoff election, the main primary would have to be moved up into late May.

That throws off the current candidate filing deadline/neighborhood-delegate-caucus date/county and state convention dates.

But maybe something can be done to still accommodate the general election year scheduling with a run-off primary possibility.

In any case, UtahPolicy is told a bill file will be opened soon to start the process of reaching a plurality compromise in the 2017 election, and a closed GOP Senate caucus discussed the idea briefly a week ago.

Whether Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, runs for re-election or not in 2018, it is likely there could be half a dozen GOP candidates – several using SB54’s petition route – in that race.

Come 2020 there could a dozen GOP gubernatorial candidates or more in that open race – again, many using the petition route directly to the closed primary.

Thus, in the next two election cycles there is a chance no one could get 50 percent of the primary vote in major GOP races.

And what GOP legislators and Herbert decide to do about primary plurality could really determine what the next generation of top officeholders look like in Utah.