Analysis: Petition Signature Gatherers Could Essentially Ignore Rural Areas to Get a Petition on the Ballot

Petition GatheringUtahPolicy reported last week that legislative Republicans and state GOP bosses are talking about an SB54 plurality compromise for the 2017 Legislature.

One that would, hopefully, settle the controversial candidate-path-to-primary law, at least for the near future.

But if the plurality issue fails to satisfy the Count My Vote folks, watch for a renewed statewide citizen initiative petition drive coming in late 2017 into 2018.

You may recall that CMV supporters spent around $1 million and months of work gathering more than 110,000 voter signatures in 26 of 29 state Senate districts to get their signature-gathering-only candidate law on the 2014 ballot.

CMV dropped that effort after the SB54 compromise bill passed the 2014 Legislature.

State Republican Party leaders then sued over SB54, twice in federal court, once before the Utah Supreme Court. They lost at each turn.

Now GOP leaders say they won’t appeal those federal court loses to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals if the Legislature finds a “satisfactory” resolution to the plurality issue: What to do if three or more candidates are on the primary ballot and no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote.

While CMV supporters said they were confident they met the petition signature thresholds, opponents of CMV/SB54 maintained since the signatures were not actually certified by county clerks, CMV, in fact, failed to get the required 10 percent of voter signatures in 26 of the 29 state Senate districts.

This leads to my analysis below of that super-majority Senate district requirement now in state law.

Years ago the initiative petition law – guaranteed in the Utah Constitution – said you had to get a certain percent of resident signatures from the various Utah counties.

But since that violated the one-man, one-vote requirements of equal protection under the U.S. Constitution, the Utah Supreme Court threw that county requirement out.

And the Utah Legislature switched to population-divided state Senate districts instead – you had to get 10 percent of the citizen signatures in 26 of the 29 Senate districts. That new bar meets constitutional requirements.

Still, many who have looked at running statewide citizen initiative petitions say that requirement is too difficult, making a successful petition tough to achieve unless you can afford $1 million to hire professional signature gatherers.

But let’s take a look at the Utah Senate district map. You can see it here.

And what strikes you quickly is that three districts, numbers 24, 26 and 27, cover about two-thirds of Utah’s land mass.

So if you just concentrate on the other 26 districts (the number required) by the petition law, you have a much smaller area to cover.

In fact, you can concentrate you signature-gathering efforts in relatively large population Utah cities and counties – from Brigham City and Logan in the north, down through Ogden and Weber and Davis counties, all through Salt Lake County, down to Orem-Provo to Cedar City and St. George, and east over the mountains to Park City and Heber – and you should be able to reach your 26 state Senate district 10 percent resident goal.

The Utah Supreme Court warned back in that county-10-percent ruling that lawmakers can’t make the citizen initiative petition route too cumbersome, too hard, for that in effect would kill the state Constitution’s guarantee of that law-making alternative.

The 10 percent 26 of 29 state Senate district requirement is tough to make – just ask supporters of several recently failed initiative drives.

But the die-hard SB54 haters who believe a renewed CMV petition drive in 2018 would fail, had better take heed – just look at the state Senate district map, and you can see that 10 percent goal can be reached without even trying to gather signatures wholly or in rural parts of 18 Utah counties.

The 26 Senate district 10 percent goal can be achieved by concentrating signature gathering in larger Utah cities and counties.

And betting that you can bluff the CMV supporters with an unsatisfactory plurality solution – like throwing a non-majority primary back into the hands of county or state party delegates – is a foolish wager, to say the least.