Utah may move to special elections to fill legislative vacancies

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, wants to make a drastic change to how legislative vacancies are filled, taking power away from party delegates and giving it to voters.

Currently, when a legislator steps down from office, their replacement is determined by a vote of party delegates from their district. Most recently, Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, retired and Republican delegates in her district chose Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo, as her replacement. Once Grover’s appointment is approved by Gov. Gary Herbert, GOP delegates in his former House district will then get to pick his replacement.

Bramble argues it’s time to scrap that replacement method in favor of a special election.

“Why should less than 100 delegates have the authority to choose for tens of thousands of citizens without an election?” said Bramble.

Bramble says he concluded that it’s time to fill those vacancies with a special election because of arguments from the Utah GOP against Utah’s dual-track ballot access system.

“I’ve re-read the filings from the GOP (in their lawsuits against SB54). In every case they argue they are a private organization,” says Bramble. “By what right does the party claim ownership of a legislative seat? The people own the ballot, not the party.”

The Utah GOP, specifically hardliners on the GOP State Central Committee, has argued for years that Utah’s system allowing candidates to gather signatures to bypass the traditional convention system to secure a spot on the primary ballot violates their rights as a private organization. Those claims have been rebuffed several times in state and federal court.

Bramble says the party’s argument should cut both ways.

“We don’t allow other private organizations to appoint elected officials, so why should we let parties?”

By some counts, some 30% of legislators first made their way to office through an appointment to fill a midterm vacancy. After the appointment, that legislator becomes an incumbent on the next ballot, which offers enormous fundraising and other advantages when it comes time to defend the seat. 

Bramble says he’s not sure how the timeline for a special election would take place, but there are primary and regular elections during even-numbered years and municipal elections during off-years. He does admit that making the change would result in an increased cost, which is why he’s starting the discussions now with the aim of bringing a bill to the 2019 Legislature.

“Look at my own Senate seat. I’ve been elected five times. At the end of the current term, I’ll have served 20 years. But, that’s all by leave of the voters. If I step down, shouldn’t that go to an election?” he asks.