What Changes Will SB54 Bring?

Many congressional and legislative candidates are focused now on their upcoming state party conventions to be held this coming Saturday.


They aren’t thinking about the 2016 elections, two years away.

The candidates’ eyes, money spending and hopes fall on their convention delegates – who are likely more conservative (for the Republicans) and more liberal (for the Democrats) than rank-and-file members of their respective political parties.

Certainly, the delegates (survey after survey show) are further from the political middle than are rank-and-file Utah voters.

To avoid being kicked from office, congressional and legislative incumbents running this year must get at least 40 percent of their delegate vote to survive their state convention and go to a June party primary.

(Just over a week ago one Salt Lake County GOP House member was bumped from office by his county delegates.)

As the old caucus/delegate/convention process plays out this spring for the last time, let’s take a look at some of the interesting political dynamics that will (barring changes to SB54 in the 2015 Legislature) unfold the next time around.

(You can read SB54 here.) 

— Candidates may choose to gather voter signatures, and thus make their party primary ballots in 2016.

— That process will actually begin Jan. 1, 2016, the day petition-bound candidates can sign up with their county clerks/Utah Election Office to begin collecting voter signatures. No signatures can be taken before Jan. 1 of each general election year.

— It will take 28,000 signatures for candidates running for the U.S. Senate, governor, attorney general, state treasurer and auditor.

— It will take 7,000 voter signatures for candidates in any of the four U.S. House races.

— It will take 2,000 signatures for state Senate candidates; 1,000 signatures for a state House race.

— It will take 3 percent of registered voters in any county for a countywide race; 3 percent of voters in any district council race within a county.

The above numbers could be changed by the 2015 Legislature, as some are arguing these numbers are either too hard to reach, or too easily reached.

As you may recall, the County My Vote citizen initiative petition – which was well on its way to the 2014 ballot box before the SB54 compromise ended the petition drive – would have required 2 percent of political party registered voters’ signatures to get to a direct primary.

SB54 says a statewide candidate, like governor and U.S. Senate, needs 28,000 signatures of any registered voter (not party registered voter).

That 28,000 is 2.1 percent of all the 2014 registered voters in Utah, UtahPolicy finds.

Registered voters in U.S. Congress and legislative races vary, of course, depending on how many adults in those areas register and participate in elections.

(Districts lines are drawn according to the number of people living in an area, not on the number of registered voters in an area.)

In the 2012 District 6 state Senate race, where Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, won election, 33,010 people voted. If, in 2016, Harper decided to go the petition route, he would need 2,000 voter signatures, or 6 percent of the people who voted in his district in 2012.

While not a direct comparison, generally speaking the more people who vote in a legislative district reflects the greater number of registered voters in that district.

For example, on Salt Lake County’s eastside Holladay District 37, in 2012 the hard-hitting re-election of Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss saw 17,452 votes cast.

That would equate to Spackman-Moss needing to get 5.7 percent of voters to make the 1,000 petition signatures in 2016.

But in the poorer area of Rep. Jen Seelig’s northwest side Salt Lake City District 23, only 7,411 votes were cast in 2012.

A candidate there in 2016 would need to get 1,000 voter signatures, or 13 percent of the number who voted two years ago.

Thus, in theory, it would be harder for a 2016 candidate to find 1,000 registered voters in Seelig’s District 23 than in Spackman-Moss’s District 37 – there are just fewer registered voters in Seelig’s area.

Likewise, in large, rural legislative districts in southern Utah, it would take a greater effort to find – and get signatures from – far-flung registered voters.

It makes sense, then, that come January and February 2016 one would find legislative candidates and their supporters standing outside of high school basketball games and/or local shopping malls with maps of their districts in hand, asking adults if they are registered voters, and if they live inside the candidates’ districts.

Hoping those folks would sign their candidate-authorization petitions.

However, the Utah Legislature is in its annual 45-day general session starting the third Monday in January, running through February and into mid-March.

It makes sense it will be harder for in-session lawmakers to gather voter signatures than their challengers – who aren’t on Capitol Hill for 45 days.

Candidates have to turn in their voter signature petitions 14 days before the political party convention in which their district is voted upon – even if the petition candidates themselves ARE NOT to be voted on in that convention because they are seeking a primary ballot spot via petitions, not convention delegate votes.

Those county and state party conventions occur in April.

That means if you are a state Senate or House candidate whose district is wholly in a single county, you have to turn in your candidate petitions 14 days before your county convention – which is usually two weeks BEFORE the state party convention where multi-county legislative districts are voted on.

This gives an advantage to multi-county candidates in the signature-gathering process.

Spackman-Moss and Seelig and their ilk would have about two week LESS time to gather candidate signatures than candidates in areas where the districts cross county lines.

Of course, many of those multi-county districts are in rural Utah, so one could argue the extra two weeks are needed.

But that is not always the case.

For example, Harper’s Senate district flows into eastern Tooele County, while the Senate district to his east is all in Salt Lake County – two different candidate petition deadlines for gathering signatures in equally urban areas.

Candidates running in the same districts would, of course, have the same candidate petition filing deadlines – so within each legislative race all the candidates would have the same time frame to gather signatures. (Although incumbent lawmakers would be disadvantaged by being in session for 45 days during the petition gathering period.)

County clerks are a bit under the gun, as well, in the new candidate petition process.

Clerks have two weeks to certify that the candidates’ voter signatures are valid – both that the signee is a registered voter and that he or she really lives inside of the candidate’s legislative district.

For candidates the best way to make sure a signee lives in your district, of course, is to walk neighborhoods and get the person who answers the door to sign your petition.

In areas where there are restrictive-entry housing – apartment buildings or gated communities – neighborhood signature gathering could be more difficult, however.

Already, potential 2016 candidates are saying they would likely take both party nomination routes at the same time, as allowed under SB54.

That means a candidate would gather voter signatures and appear before their party’s nominating convention, where delegates would vote on them.

So this could happen: A candidate could gather signatures, but his county clerk(s) could the day before his convention determine he didn’t have the required number of valid voter signatures.

The next day at the convention the candidate could fail to get at least 40 percent of the delegate vote. (Known to delegates would be the fact that he failed to get the required signatures.)

And thus he wouldn’t make his party’s primary ballot even trying both routes.

Kind of like being a double loser. Ouch!

Of course, candidates who pick the dual route could also make the primary ballot by gathering the required number of voter signatures, even if they failed to get 40 percent of the delegate vote in their party convention.

Kind of a lose one, win one scenario.