House Moves Forward on Bill Addressing Plurality in Primary Elections

Another fight over the Count My Vote compromise has erupted on Utah's Capitol Hill.

Last year when lawmakers passed SB 54, which created a hybrid path to the primary ballot. Many worried it would set up a system where a candidate could secure a party's nomination with less than 50% of the vote. That's an entirely possible eventuality as the compromise could allow more than two candidates on the primary ballot.
Lawmakers moved ahead with HB 313, sponsored by Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin. The bill attempts to address that plurality issue by sending the ultimate decision on a nomination back to the party if no candidate gets more than 50% in a primary election. 
"This is a result of unintended consequences from SB 54," said Roberts. "I began working on this last summer with election officials. We talked about going to preferential voting, but that would be too big of a cost. Same thing with a runoff election after a primary. This is the most effective system right now."
During the 2014 debate over the CMV compromise, lawmakers pointed to the plurality issue as a potential issue. 
HB 313 has been referred to as the "Iowa option." There is one difference between the two plans. Iowa sends the candidates from a primary election back to caucus delegates if nobody crosses the 35% margin. Roberts' bill sets the threshold at 50%.
Jenn Gonnelly with the Utah League of Women Voters says that could lead to a situation where a candidate wins 45% of the vote in a primary, yet delegates might choose another candidate to go forward.
"Are we suggesting voters go to the polls for a primary, then because nobody gets to a majority that the results of that voting would be thrown out with the decision going back to the party?" she said. "We wouldn’t throw out any other election because someone didn’t get a majority. Why would we want to do that for the primary?"
Rich McKeown, Executive co-chair of Count My Vote, says this proposal is a solution looking for a problem.
"Plurality is an issue we have lived with over the course of time. Mike Leavitt was elected to be governor with 42% of the vote."
James Evans, Chair of the Utah Republican Party counters that Leavitt's plurality victory came in a general election, not during a primary. 
"This sets up a situation where someone could be the Republican nominee with perhaps 26% of the vote," says Evans. "Count My Vote didn't address this issue in their negotiations with the legislature last year. Now they want to muddy the water on this matter."
Last week, Count My Vote organizers said they viewed HB 313 as a direct violation of the agreement reached with lawmakers last year because it would let party delegates trump the will of voters. They've threatened to re-file their initiative if the bill passes as it stands.
"We negotiated a deal last year that ended in a compromise," said McKeown. "There has been a consistent effort to circumvent that agreement since it passed. This bill is subterfuge."
In his Monday afternoon media availability, House Speaker Greg Hughes disagreed with CMV's assertion that the law violated the agreement, and feels it's crucial that lawmakers address the plurality issue this session.
He says he attended last year's Sunday press conference announcing the SB54 compromise during the previous session. And he said it was clear that the issue of a plurality in a party primary election was open, and not part of the compromise.

“I can understand why the CMV folks wouldn’t like” Roberts’ bill, he said.
However, Hughes added that HB313 is the only bill he’s seen this session that deals with plurality.
Hughes says he is open to another solution to the issue, but he said it must be decided this year. Anything passed by the 2016 Legislature would come too late for political parties and candidates, who have to file for office right after the session ends and so must know the rules they are running under.

Evans says Count My Vote is using the threat of re-filing their initiative to kill the caucus system to mau-mau lawmakers into submission.
"This reminds me of the popular kids in high school who bully people," he says. "It's unfortunate that Count My Vote is threatening to renege on their part of the deal. I don't think the public would tolerate their disingenuousness."