No more signatures? Utah legislators working on a major change to how candidates get on the ballot

Utah Capitol 27

It’s the issue that just won’t die on Utah’s Capitol Hill. Once again, there is an effort afoot to bring changes to the state’s dual-path nominating system, more commonly known as SB54. 

In previous years, some of the more conservative lawmakers have focused on repealing the measure, which allows candidates to gather signatures to secure a place on a party’s primary ballot. Candidates also can go through the traditional caucus/convention system or both.

This year, instead of repeal, lawmakers have been discussing adding another option for political parties that would allow them to choose to nominate candidates through the convention system only, which would eliminate the signature option for candidates.

“One thing that is clear is there is still no peace on this issue,” says Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who is working on legislation to create the new option for political parties. “The current system hasn’t stopped the fighting, so we have to explore other options.”

McCay’s bill allows a political party to nominate candidates through the convention system so long as they set a high threshold for winning a party’s nomination outright at ⅔ of the delegate vote. Anything less would send the top two candidates to a primary election.

If McCay’s bill passes, it would likely impact the 2022 election cycle as dozens of Republican candidates have already declared their intent to gather signatures to get on the ballot this year.

The current SB54 system was established in 2014 as a compromise between the Utah Legislature and Count My Vote, a group threatening a ballot initiative to do away with the convention path in favor of signature-gathering only. 

With the failure of the tax reform package, these are touchy times on Utah’s Capitol Hill. One member of the House leadership team, who spoke on condition of anonymity, didn’t know if their body has the appetite to take up a change to SB54 this year. 

Sensitivity to public opinion – as is usually the case – is more strongly felt in the House where all 75 members are up for re-election this year. In the past, the House has taken a tough vote to repeal SB54 only to see the bill die without consideration in the Senate.

Utah Republican Party leaders have been involved in the discussions about McCay’s proposed changes to SB54. Party Chairman Derek Brown says he thinks adding another option for political parties is the correct move.

“It just gives a party another choice to determine how they want to go about choosing their nominees,” said Brown. 

One group that has been frozen out of the negotiations over SB54 is Count My Vote, and they seem none too happy about the possibility of changing the compromise they crafted with lawmakers 6 years ago.

“We’re committed to protecting and defending the dual path to the ballot to make sure voters have a choice in choosing their candidates,” said CMV spokesperson Taylor Morgan. 

“We’ll do whatever it takes to defend the compromise, whether that’s launching a referendum on anything that passes or a new ballot initiative. Voters like the current system, and it’s working very well,” said Morgan.

House leaders tell that any effort to change SB54 this year must begin in the Senate. Several times previously the House has voted to repeal or alter the dual-path system only to see the effort die before a vote in the Senate. House Republicans are seemingly in no mood to be burned by Senate inaction again.

But even if the Senate decides to act it is unlikely, this person said, that any repeal or drastic change to SB54 would get two-thirds votes, either in the House or Senate. Without two-thirds, Gov. Gary Herbert could veto the measure (requiring two-thirds to override). Failure to secure ⅔ also leaves any legislative action open to a referendum effort.

Governor Gary Herbert’s office is aware of the discussions surrounding the potential change to the dual-track system, but they have not taken a position.

“We need to give further review to the proposal, but what we currently have in place seems to be working well,” said Justin Harding, Herbert’s Chief of Staff.

Polling has consistently shown strong public support for SB54, including a majority of Republicans in the state.

Republican hardliners have been striving to undo the SB54 compromise almost since it was signed in 2014. The party filed a lawsuit challenging the dual-path system. Last year the Supreme Court declined to hear the party’s appeal of a lower court ruling upholding the law.

In 2018 a group of dissidents on the Republican State Central Committee approved a bylaw that said any candidate that gathers signatures to get on the primary ballot automatically loses their party membership, which stood in opposition to state law. Former Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson was censured by the State Central Committee for refusing to send the illegal bylaw to the state elections office. State elections officials said they would ignore the bylaw unless there was to be a court challenge.