As it stands, political parties in Utah have two options for nominating candidates. If the parties wish to use the traditional convention system, they must also allow candidates the option of gathering signatures to reach the primary ballot. Otherwise, the signature route is the only choice available to them.
Instead of just two paths, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, is proposing four options for political parties to use. In addition to the current dual-path and only signatures routes, McCay’s SB91 gives parties the option of returning to the caucus/convention-only path that was in place prior to the 2014 compromise that birthed the signature-gathering process. The fourth route in the bill is a sort of emergency option for parties, allowing them to place candidates directly on the general election ballot if they fail to use the other available paths.
McCay says he wants to revisit the compromise because it’s still sowing division within the Utah GOP.
“I’m hopeful we can put this issue behind us at some point. The Republican majority legislature is at odds with our party. This is an effort try and at least mend the majority party with its majority leaders,” says McCay.
The history of the compromise, also known as SB54, is a complicated one. In 2013, the Count My Vote group approached the Utah GOP and asked them to raise the threshold for winning the nomination at the convention to ⅔ of the delegates. The reason being it would lead to more primary elections.
The Utah GOP balked, and Count My Vote began preparations to launch a ballot initiative to eliminate the convention nomination path. As a last resort, the GOP-dominated legislature forged the SB54 compromise with Count My Vote, which created the current dual-path nomination system.
Shortly after the 2014 compromise was signed into law, a group of hardliners on the Utah GOP State Central Committee moved to have the party sue to block it, saying it violated their right to determine their nominees. After numerous court battles that nearly bankrupted the party, SB54 was upheld by a federal court and just last year the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the party’s appeal.
McCay’s proposal effectively guts that 2014 deal between CMV and the legislature. It restores a political party’s ability to nominate candidates through the convention and takes away the ability to guarantee a spot on the primary ballot even if they don’t win enough support from convention delegates.
“It’s a divisive issue within the party,” says McCay. “I’ve grown weary of my colleagues fighting over it.”
The fate of McCay’s bill lies in the Utah Senate. The Utah House has previously approved bills repealing SB54 only to see the measure die without the Senate taking it up for consideration. If McCay can generate enough support to get his proposal through the Senate, it likely would pass the House. But, some of his colleagues may not be in the mood to change the rules.
“I like the path we’re using,” said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. “Voters seem to like having options.”
McCay’s bill was drafted without the participation of Count My Vote. Taylor Morgan, a spokesperson for CMV, says they plan to oppose McCay’s bill because they believe the current compromise is working well.
“Political party insiders have never liked SB54 because they no longer control the nomination process,” said Morgan. “But Utah voters, including registered Republicans, strongly support the dual path and think it’s working very well. All party voters should get to choose candidates, not just insiders like Senator McCay.”
In 2016, Gov. Gary Herbert finished second at the Utah GOP convention to businessman Jonathan Johnson, but since he gathered signatures, Herbert was not in danger of being eliminated from another term in office by delegates. Herbert went on to an easy win over Johnson in the Republican primary that year.
The following year, Rep. Jason Chaffetz retired unexpectedly from Congress before the end of his term. Republican delegates picked former State Rep. Chris Herrod at the special convention that year to nominate a replacement for Chaffetz. But, Provo Mayor John Curtis, who finished fifth at the convention, gathered the 7,000 signatures to get on the primary ballot and won the Republican nomination over Herrod and Tanner Ainge who also used signatures to compete in the primary.
Last year, GOP delegates picked State Rep. Mike Kennedy over Mitt Romney. But, Romney used signatures to secure a spot in the primary where he cruised to an easy victory.
This year, there are six Republicans vying for the party’s nomination in the governor’s race. Five of those candidates are seeking to secure the required 28,000 signatures to appear on the primary ballot. But, that doesn’t mean those candidates like those rules.
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is the current frontrunner in the GOP race according to recent polling, said Friday night at the Salt Lake County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner that the SB54 compromise was not working.
“We have to do something about SB54,” said Huntsman. “It is absurd. I don’t know what the answer is, but we have to fix it. We can all get together at the right time and figure it out.”
“That’s what we’re going to need to take us back to the rigors of what I think the old days provided for us, which I thought was pretty good,” continued Huntsman. “It was pretty good in terms of what they demanded and expected of the candidates.”
Huntsman’s campaign declined to answer whether he would sign a repeal of SB54 if he were to be elected in November.
“We don’t deal in hypotheticals,” said spokesperson Lisa Roskelley, “But he does see issues with the current system.”