Special Session Will Address State School Board Election Mess, Not ‘Count My Vote’ Compromise

Utah State Capitol 06

There may well be a special legislative session next Wednesday, but SB54 will be taking a back seat at it, Capitol Hill sources tell UtahPolicy.

There is in the works an attempt to quickly get both the state and Utah Republican Party to draft a letter outlining how they read SB54’s language and to get those arguments before either a state or federal judge for a timely ruling; sources told UtahPolicy Monday morning.

That way SB54 WOULD NOT have to be changed in a substantial way in any special session: Let the judge’s ruling apply to the 2016 election cycle, sources said.

However, there could be a special session next week to deal with another election issue – how voters pick the Utah State Board of Education’s 15 members.

Several weeks ago GOP Gov. Gary Herbert announced that he would not be calling together a special committee to recommend candidates for the Utah State School Board.

That’s because a judge has ruled that the state’s current board election process is unconstitutional.

Currently, a committee screens potential candidates and recommends a few in each district up for election to the governor, who in turn puts two names on the general election ballot.

Lawmakers failed in the 2015 Legislature to change the now-illegal process.

But half of the board is up for election in 2016, so something must be done to allow for a legal election/candidate selection process to go forward.

A non-partisan election for board members won’t pass in the Senate, said one source. While a partisan election (candidates running as Republicans, Democrats or some other party) won’t pass in the House, said another.

A third alternative is to have the governor appoint state board members, but that won’t pass in either body, sources said.

So legislative attorneys are drafting a bill that would tweak the current committee/governor-select process to pass constitutional muster – although exactly what that will look like is not known to legislative leaders, sources said.

Sources tell UtahPolicy that legislative GOP leaders would like any special session to happen on the regular monthly interim study day – now scheduled next Wednesday.

There is no interim meeting in December, as legislative staff prepares for the late-January convening of the 45-day general session.

It would be best to settle the State Board of Education issue sooner rather than wait for the regular session – since a decision there could drag out until just before the mid-March end of the session, which occurs a few days before the general candidate filing opens.

If a special session comes next week, perhaps SB54 could be re-opened to look at coordinating all candidate filing dates, sources said.

Currently, under SB54 a candidate who is taking the petition-gathering route to the primary ballot can start gathering signatures Jan. 4 – in effect declaring his candidacy.

But a candidate who is going only through the current delegate/convention route doesn’t file until the regular mid-March deadline.

An idea floated in October GOP caucus meetings would move all candidate filing deadlines up to the Jan. 4 date.

Because Jan. 4 is within the 60-day effective date of regular law-making, the vote to move the candidate filing deadline up would take two-thirds in the House and Senate, sources said – so a super-majority of votes would be needed.

Another idea is to reduce the number of signatures required to get on the primary ballot for state House and Senate candidates.

That’s because incumbent legislators seeking re-election, and going the petition route, would be in session for much of the petition gathering timeframe.

And so it would be harder for sitting legislators to get the current requirements – 1,000 registered voter signatures for a House candidate, 2,000 for a Senate candidate.

For a Qualified Political Party under SB54, a candidate can only gather signatures from folks who are allowed to vote in their primary elections.

Currently, the state GOP holds closed primary elections – you have to be a registered Republican to vote in that party’s primary election.

Democrats hold open primaries.

So, Democratic candidates can collect signatures from Democrats and unaffiliated (independent) voters.

Republicans can collect signatures only from registered Republicans.

Many Utahns are registered Republicans so they can vote in the GOP primary – since in most races that is where the real choice comes, the final election always going to the GOP candidate on the ballot.

Thus, in most cases a Democratic candidate seeking the petition route may have to do more work to find registered Democrats and independents in his district and get them to sign his candidacy petition.

There’s been talk of dealing with primary plurality – what to do if in a three-candidate-plus primary field no one gets 50 percent of the votes plus one.

But that issue WILL NOT be dealt with in any SB54 special sessions, sources said.

Sources tell UtahPolicy that state officials are confident if they can get the recent complaints by GOP state chairman James Evans before a judge, then the state will win its interpretation of SB54 – and, thus, candidates can’t be kicked out of the Utah Republican Party (as Evans claims) for taking the petition-gathering signature route.

The anticipated judicial ruling would keep SB54 sound, and not throw the issue back into the political vagaries of the Utah Legislature.

In addition, more than a dozen Utah House Republicans won office or were appointed after the 2014 vote on SB54 – and so it would also politically help them if they didn’t have to take a vote against their own political party (and Evans’ stands), and for clarifying SB54 along the original compromise with Count My Vote citizen initiative petition advocates.