Commentary: SB54 battle could spark new ballot initiative and split GOP

A number of Republicans in the Utah Legislature are planning to essentially repeal SB54, the Count My Vote compromise that allows candidates to gather signatures to get on the primary election ballot.

In addition to turning the nomination process over to a few thousand party delegates, shutting out hundreds of thousands of other voters, the move to undo SB54, embodied in SB205, sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay, could have two important political consequences:

–First, it could result in another expensive initiative battle, with mainstream Republicans raising millions of dollars to put a proposal on the ballot to counter SB205. Only this time, the ballot proposal would not provide a dual ballot process, allowing candidates ballot access via the caucus/convention system or by gathering signatures, or both. 

Instead, the new initiative would simply institute an open primary election, the process used in most states. Political parties could still hold caucuses and conventions, but would not be allowed to nominate candidates through those meetings. All voters would choose party nominees, not just party delegates.

–The second big political impact would be to split the Republican Party and damage fundraising. Mainstream Republicans, by very high margins, have supported SB54 and allowing candidates to gather signatures to get on the ballot. They very much oppose turning over the candidate selection process exclusively to a relatively few delegates.

GOP fundraising nearly dried up the last time the party fought SB54. Most of the party’s largest contributors support SB54. The party’s Elephant Club, comprised mostly of large donors, was disbanded and a new entity, the Reagan Roundtable, was created without party control of money raised.

If SB205 is passed, expect major donors to end contributions to the party and instead contribute directly to candidates or to the Reagan Roundtable – with the stipulation that no money goes to the party or to candidates who supported eviscerating the SB54 compromise.

Passage of SB205 could also result in a lot of party challenges to right-wing legislators, including some who vote for SB205. A recent poll shows some 68 percent of Utah voters, and a high majority of Republicans, support SB54, so it’s a good issue to run on.

The political risks are high for both sides. A new initiative would cost millions of dollars. Supporters would have to gather sufficient signatures and also fight off a likely effort to get signers to rescind their signatures. More court battles could follow.

I was among those original supporters of SB54 and was part of the initiative process. My sense is that many prominent Republicans and community leaders are energized to preserve the right for all voters to choose their party nominees. These leaders appear unlikely to back away from another fight.