Lawmakers Grappling with Plurality Issue in Primary Elections

While Senate and House GOP leaders are saying the “grand compromise” party candidate nomination bill of last year, SB54, should not be repealed nor postponed this session, there is a loophole – if you will – in those promises.

The question: Should something be done about the real possibility that future party primaries won’t yield a majority candidate winner?

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who voted for SB54 last year and stands by it today, tells UtahPolicy that a plurality victor in a party primary was not part of the “grand compromise” – and that how to deal with that no-clear-majority primary winner can – and maybe should – be dealt with in the 2015 Legislature.

Friday, a bill that’s been called the “nuclear option” – HB313 by Rep. Marc Roberts – was held in the House Rules Committee and not sent to a standing committee for a hearing.

HB313 “is a significant policy change,” said Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, who make the motion in Rules to hold the bill. And more discussion and thought should be taken before it is sent out of Rules.

“I’ve heard there may be other bills on (primary election) plurality,” said Rules vice chair John Cox, R-Ephraim. But so far none have shown up.

First, some history: SB54 provides two paths for a candidate to get on his party’s primary ballot:

— He can gather a certain number of voter signatures (they vary according to the seat one seeks), and automatically his name goes on the primary ballot.

— He can go through the traditional caucus/convention party process and, if he gets enough convention delegate votes, advance to the primary.

SB54 could allow almost any number of candidates to make the primary ballot – if 10 candidates got the required voter signatures and two candidates got through the party convention, there would be 12 candidates on the primary ballot.

That may be an extreme example, but it would be possible.

And with 12 candidates – or even three or four candidates – on the primary ballot, chances are one would NOT get 50 percent of the primary vote plus one.

The top vote-getter could have less than 50 percent, could have less than 40 percent.

Utah has no primary run off system, since under the old caucus/convention process either the caucus delegate vote or the primary election provided a majority-winner nominee.

HB313 is called the “nuclear option” because under its provisions if no candidate gets a majority vote in the primary, the nomination is thrown back into the party to make the decision – where under some yet-undecided process a single candidate would come out to the general election ballot.

Maybe the party would have the Central Committee pick the nominee. Maybe the choice would go back to a second convention, where delegates would name the nominee.

Both the Count My Vote citizen initiative petition and SB54 were designed to allow a candidate to bypass the party’s caucus/convention system – if they so chose.

HB313 could well dump the leading primary candidates – who failed to get 50 percent plus 1 in the citizen vote – back into the party’s process, where it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a candidate who purposely bypassed the delegates at the start of the election cycle would be dumped, and the candidate who went through the delegate selection process earlier – and was favored by the delegates then – would come out as the nominee.

Since part of CMV and SB54 was specifically designed to get more moderate candidates – less favored by extreme delegates – on a primary ballot, HB313, if passed, could undo that.

But, as mentioned above, how to deal with a plurality candidate coming out of a party primary was NOT part of the SB54 compromise, says Hughes.

One plurality solution would be to have a second primary election – between the top two vote-getters — if no candidate gets 50 percent plus 1 of the first primary election.

But that would cost taxpayers around $1 million or more for a runoff, second primary.

HB313 is another option – if no primary candidate gets a majority – the chose of the nominee is thrown back to the party to decide.

As of Friday, HB313 was held in the House Rules Committee. But chances are it won’t be held there for the rest of the 2015 Legislature.

And whether the goals of CMV or SB54 are ultimately upheld or undermined remains to be seen.