Herbert vetoes special congressional election bill

Utah Capitol 04

Gov. Gary Herbert vetoed SB123 on Monday evening. The bill sets rules for replacing members of Congress who are unable to finish their terms.

SB123 from Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, calls for a special election in the case of a U.S. House vacancy, but only allows candidates to get on the ballot through a political party’s convention with no signature gathering route. Parties would be required to send two names to the primary ballot, unless there was only one declared candidate, ensuring a primary election for the nomination.

“He kind of signaled as much,” said McCay on Monday evening. “The veto shows they prefer one person making the policy for elections in Utah rather than the 104 people in the legislature.”

In his veto letter, Herbert pointed to the lack of a signature path as the reason he nixed the bill.

“This bill significantly limits participation and choice in elections to fill vacancies in the United States House of Representatives and therefore limits the ability of Utah voters to choose their Congressional representatives,” he wrote. “The caucus system has been preserved in Utah law and remains a strong, critical component of Utah elections. Recent changes in Utah add to that foundation and give candidates the choice to pursue one or more options. That system is working well for both candidates and voters.”

There were discussions on the final day of the 2019 session to possibly add a signature path in special congressional elections to the bill, but those talks were ultimately fruitless.

“My colleagues in the Senate don’t understand where the House is on adding signatures to this process,” said McCay. “They’re not terribly crazy about it.”

The bill took on greater importance in the final week of the 2019 session as rumors began to swirl that Rep. Chris Stewart may be on President Donald Trump’s short list to become Air Force Secretary. 

In 2016, Rep. Jason Chaffetz resigned suddenly from his seat shortly after winning re-election. State law only specifies that the governor calls a special election to pick a replacement, but does not lay out a process for doing so. That set off a battle between lawmakers and Gov. Herbert over how to conduct the election. Legislative leaders wanted Herbert to call a special session so they could set rules for the election, but Herbert decided to use the current dual path system. Provo Mayor John Curtis finished in 5th place at the special GOP convention to pick a replacement, but gathered signatures and eventually defeated convention winner Chris Herrod.

Republicans in the House anticipated that the would draw a veto from Herbert and pushed hard to get 50 or more votes to have enough to veto a possible override. House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, kept the final vote on the bill open for more than four minutes in order to whip votes. Ultimately three Republicans flipped their votes to push the yes total over 51.

In the Senate, however, it takes 20 votes to override the governor’s veto, and the final tally was just 19 which is one short.

“If it’s vetoed, we will most likely attempt to override that,” said one House Republican who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They acknowledged the difficult part of a possible override will be in the Senate.

SB123 also changed how vacancies in the U.S. Senate are handled. Currently, the central committee of the political party that holds the Senate seat forwards three names to the governor, who selects one to fill the seat until a special election. McCay’s bill gave the responsibility for picking three names to the legislature. Herbert said the bill created ambiguities on how those names would be forwarded.

Legislative leaders will poll their members to see if there is enough support to hold a veto override session.