Future Uncertain for Fix to Count My Vote Compromise (UPDATE)

A bill that could throw a party candidates’ nomination back to delegates passed the Utah House Monday night, but its future in the Senate is unclear.

Fifteen GOP House members who voted for the SB54 compromise bill last year went against the wishes of the Count My Vote leaders and supported an amended HB313.

The bill passed 39-34, with two House members absent from the vote.

In the meantime, UtahPolicy is told by Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans that he would be willing to accept even further amendments to HB313 to make it more acceptable to legislators.

Evans met with GOP senators Tuesday afternoon in a closed caucus. (The Senate Republicans always hold closed caucuses.)

After that meeting Evans said the party would accept some kind of “trigger” that would allow even a primary candidate who got under 40 percent of the primary vote to become the party’s nominee without having to go back before delegates.

Evans explained it like this: Let’s say that some GOP candidate, in a multi-candidate primary, got 39 or 37 percent of the vote.

However, the next candidate closest to that first-place finisher only got 25 percent of the vote. If HB313 were changed to say the top two vote-getters went back to the delegates ONLY if the second-place finisher was within 10 percentage points of first place, then in the above instance the 37 percent finisher would be the primary winner, and the party delegates wouldn’t get a chance to pick the nominee.

Evans said perhaps the Senate would be willing to seriously consider HB313 with that further change.

It would be the second large concession the state GOP has given on the bill.

Monday night in the House, sponsor Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, amended HB313 so the political party bosses get to decide a candidate nomination only if no one in the primary gets more than 40 percent of the vote.

If one or more candidates got over 40 percent of the primary vote, the top vote-getter would be the party’s nominee and advance to the general election, under the House amendment, even if that top vote-getter had only 40 percent plus one.

Previously, HB313 had the nomination going back to the party if in a primary no candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote.

So, the House change means should HB313 become law there would be less of a chance that party leaders would get to make the final candidate decision.

Evans told UtahPolicy Tuesday afternoon that party officials are willing to consider such changes as long as there remains the guarantee that “the candidate (picked in the primary) has a goodly percentage of core Republican voter support.”

As reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, Roberts said Monday night: "I think we should demand at least 50 percent. We will live at 40 percent at this point.”

Roberts said he considered doing preferential voting, but the state's electronic voting machines weren't able to handle preferential voting, and holding another run-off election would cost too much.

Even as amended Monday night, HB313 is still against the wishes of the Count My Vote leaders.

Former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt is one of the Count My Vote founders.

He told UtahPolicy on Tuesday morning: "If HB313 becomes law, small groups of party delegates will routinely override a large plurality of Utah voters. This will add to the sense of cynicism among citizens and will further discourage Utahns from voting.

“HB313 not only violates our agreement with the Legislature, it also undermines a basic principle of representative democracy," Leavitt said in a statement provided to UtahPolicy.

 CMV executive director Taylor Morgan told UtahPolicy that the bill “undoes” the SB54 agreement and would open the door for Count My Vote to run a new citizen initiative petition aimed at the 2016 ballot.

 But it may not come to that, for HB313 still has to get passed the Senate – where Evans was Tuesday in caucus seeking possible amendments to the bill to get enough GOP senators’ support for ultimate passage.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who worked out the “grand compromise” of SB54 a year ago, tells UtahPolicy that while he doesn’t predict what a majority of Senators may do on HB313 or any other bill, he believes senators will keep to the spirit of last year’s compromise.

SB54 allows for a dual-track to a political party’s nomination by candidates.

They can choose to gather a set number of voter signatures to make the primary ballot. Or they can go through the traditional caucus/convention process, where they are voted on by party delegates in convention.

The original CMV initiative – that leaders dumped after the SB54 compromise – would have ONLY had the candidate voter signature route to the primary. Delegates would have been cut out of the process completely.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, who was in leadership last year and told his caucus Monday that the question of primary plurality was NOT part of the SB54 compromise, has pushed his members this year to do something about the case where no one gets 50 percent of the vote in a crowded primary field.

Time and again Hughes has said that HB313 does not violate the SB54 agreement – since there was no agreement on how to handle a plurality primary.

But Taylor and Rich McKeown, co-founder of Count My Vote with Leavitt, say that because HB313 throws back to party bosses, in some circumstances, the candidate nomination decision, it is a clear violation of SB54 – whose goal was to provide at least one route to winning a party’s nomination without going before delegates.

State GOP leaders – who were not a party to the SB54 compromise — have filed suit in federal court claiming SB54 is unconstitutional. The trial judge has put the case on hold until after the 2015 Legislature adjourns, to see if any changes come to the new law.

Bramble says it is best not to mess with SB54 this year – besides making any small, technical changes that election officials may need.

The Senate has already voted down a bill that would postpone SB54 until after the 2016 election. Senators also voted down a proposed constitutional amendment that would say political parties have the right to decide for themselves how pick their candidates, and the state can’t do anything about it.

A recent UtahPolicy poll by Dan Jones & Associates shows that only 14 percent of Utahns, and 14 percent of Republican rank-and-file, support HB313.

And while support for the SB54 compromise has dropped among the public recently, it is still the preferred option to picking a political party’s primary nominee, the new poll shows.

Those 15 House Republicans who voted for SB54 a year ago and then voted for HB313 are: Reps. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper; Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace; Jack Draxler, R-North Logan; Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville; Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville; Greg Hughes, R-Draper; Don Ipson, R-St. George; Brad Last, R-Hurricane; David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain; Dan McCay, R-Riverton; Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork; Val Peterson, R-Orem; Dean Sanpei, R-Provo; Ken Stratton, R-Orem; and Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.

All House Democrats voted against HB313 Monday night, as did a number of GOP representatives who voted for SB54 last year and voted against HB313.