Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Plurality Conditionality

With a federal judge refusing to issue an injunction against SB54 and the Utah Republican Party delegates changing their bylaws to abide by the new candidate nomination law, many thought the statute would survive at least through the 2016 elections.

But not so fast.

There is a move afoot by some Republican legislators to basically gut the compromise with the Count My Vote initiative supporters.

The idea – floated but killed in the 2015 Legislature – is that in cases where a party primary winner gets less than 50 percent of the vote, the final question on who the party nominee is goes back into the state party convention for delegates to decide.

Key to the SB54 compromise is that a candidate who didn’t want to go before his party delegates – who are more conservative among Republicans and more liberal among Democrats – could instead gather a set number of voter signatures and qualify for his party’s primary election.

Thus, you could have more than two candidates on the primary ballot – with the possibility that the candidate who got the most votes still wouldn’t receive 50 percent of the total.

GOP leaders are now throwing their hands up in despair: “What!? We could allow a candidate with less than 50 percent of the primary vote be our party nominee!? This could be the end of representative democracy!!”


Here is the great weakness in the party bosses’ argument: Why is it OK for a general election frontrunner to win office with less than 50 percent of the vote, but somehow it is intolerable for a party nominee to win with a likewise minority vote?

There is simply no good answer to that argument.

Which means the idea of throwing a minority primary winner back into the delegate convention is just another attempt by the GOP bosses to keep control of their candidates – and force them to bend to strict party loyalties and purity tests.

Think on this: Over the last 27 years Utahns have willingly accepted governors and U.S. Congressmen and Congresswomen being elected to office WITH LESS THAN 50 percent of the vote.

Here are the facts:

— 1988, then-GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter wins re-election with just 40 percent of the vote in a three-way race between himself, Democrat Ted Wilson and independent candidate Merrill Cook.

Sixty percent of Utahns DID NOT WANT Bangerter to be their governor, yet under current election law he won another term.

— 1992, GOP gubernatorial candidate Mike Leavitt wins the governorship with just 42 percent of the vote in a three-way race with Democrat Stewart Hanson and independent Cook.

Fifty-eight percent of Utahns DID NOT WANT Leavitt to be their governor. But we accepted the minority-vote winner without complaint.

— 1994, Republican Enid Greene wins the 2nd Congressional District with just 46 percent of the vote in a three-way race with Democratic Rep. Karen Shepherd and independent Cook. (Seems Cook is quite the majority winner curse, eh?)

— 2002, Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson wins the 2nd Congressional District race with just 49.43 percent of the vote over Republican John Swallow’s 48.69 percent.

— 2012, Matheson wins the 4th Congressional District race with 49.3 percent of the vote over Republican Mia Love’s 48.1 percent of the vote.

If Utahns can accept, without the political world coming to an end, a governor with only 40 percent, or 42 percent, of the vote – with so many Utahns not wanting that man to be governor – why can’t Utah GOP leaders accept a Republican nominee with less than 50 percent of the primary vote?

After all, in a GOP primary it’s still Republicans only who decide on the candidates.

In the case of general election minority-vote winners, the folks who cast ballots for someone else are forced to accept a person into office who is not even from their own party.

With Bangerter and Leavitt, Democrats and independents – who together were a majority of the voters – still had to accept a Republican governor.

How is that fair?

We don’t hear the GOP bosses and legislators complaining about those election results – which could happen again with a strong independent candidate in a general election.

Consider this: Voter turnout in Utah has gone from one of the highest in the nation in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to one of the lowest in the 2010s.

If you believe the CMV supporters, local pollsters and a number of college political science professors, one cause of this dismal civic participation is because Utah elections are not competitive.

Outside of Salt Lake City, parts of Salt Lake County and a few other Democratic strongholds, whichever Republican candidate is on the general election ballot wins.

Inside of Salt Lake City, whatever Democrat is on the general election ballot wins.

These sharp political lines have only been made worse by the GOP-controlled Legislature’s redrawing of U.S. House and Utah House and Senate district lines every ten years.

The CMV initiative petition – which was way ahead in the polls when supporters agreed to kill it in the SB54 compromise at the 2014 Legislature – would have required all party candidates be picked in primary elections.

Denying party delegates the power to nominate candidates, CMV argued, would broaden voter participation.

Given the power to pick party nominees, hopefully more Republicans would vote in the GOP primary (they hold closed primaries), more Democrats and independents vote in the Democratic primaries.

Why are primaries so important? Because in nearly all elections in Utah that is where the ultimate officeholder is picked.

The general elections are a formality. The GOP candidate – no matter who it is – wins in most races. There are but a few swing districts across the state.

Examples: Democrats have won the Salt Lake City mayor’s race since the early 1970s.

Republicans have won every U.S. Senate race since 1970, all gubernatorial races since 1984.

The Legislature has been heavily Republican since the late 1970s.

Yes, a few seats in one U.S. House district, or in the state House or Senate, or county offices, change political parties now and then.

But only a few.

If Utahns can accept the rare occasion of a Bangerter or Leavitt win with a minority of the general election votes, GOP bosses can accept the rare occasion where their party nominee doesn’t get more than 50 percent of the primary vote.

If GOP legislators break the SB54 compromise – before it even takes effect in the 2016 election — by allowing party delegates to pick the ultimate nominee – shame on them.

It shows they can’t be trusted to make a deal. And the CMV initiative petition effort, I believe, will be renewed with even greater strength and urgency.