GOP Lawmakers Considering Tweaks to SB54

Utah State Capitol 07If you want to get a Utah legislator’s attention, start talking about the specifics of his re-election.

Wednesday, House Republicans closed their caucus to talk about elections.

Present was Utah Republican Party chairman James Evans – who has sued the state over the Legislature’s passage of SB54 back in 2014.

After the caucus, UtahPolicy talked to several GOP House members, including Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.

Hughes was on the record; others talked if their names weren’t used.

Hughes reiterated that it’s important that Utahns – even those who aren’t politically active – need to have certainty in their elections, sure that candidates are being treated fairly and that their votes count.

Toward that end, said Hughes, either a court or the Legislature needs to make some tweaks to SB54: “Sooner rather than later.”

Evans has already agreed, along with state attorneys, to seek a declaratory judgment from a judge – whether state or federal is still being decided – that would clear up some SB54 provisions.

In the closed caucus, several sources told UtahPolicy, several issues were discussed, including:

— Currently SB54 says that a candidate seeking a Utah legislative seat must gather 1,000 signatures from registered voters.

Republicans hold closed primaries. So GOP candidates must get those 1,000 from registered Republicans.

Democrats hold open primaries, so a Democratic legislative candidate can collect signatures from registered Democrats or unaffiliated voters (political independents).

That 1,000 signature level may not be fair to all candidates – as GOP candidates in a heavily Republican district in Utah County, say, wouldn’t have to work as hard getting signatures as a GOP lawmaker in a swing district in West Valley City.

Thus, some kind of leveling process should be found.

— If a court can act quickly, or if a special legislative session is called by GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, the SB54 candidate filing deadlines should all be moved to early January.

SB54 says a petition-gathering candidate can start his petition drive Jan. 4. But a delegate/convention-only candidate doesn’t file until mid-March.

The dates should be the same.

— Many incumbent lawmakers are considering taking both the petition-gathering and convention routes at the same time, as allowed by SB54.

But they are in session for 45 days during the prime petition gathering time. Thus, they may well use volunteers to gather signatures.

Under current campaign law, those volunteers’ hours could be considered in-kind donations. And legislative attorneys told the caucus since lawmakers can’t solicit campaign contributions during a general session, such volunteer use could be breaking state law.

The law should be changed to allow specifically campaign volunteer in-kind donations during the general session, sources said.

Sources said Evans told the caucus – in discussions that were at times heated – that he doesn’t want to kick Republicans out of party membership if they take BOTH the petition-gathering route and the convention route at the same time.

Previously, some GOP leaders have said if any GOP candidate gathers petitions under SB54; he would be kicked out of the party.

In theory, Evans’ statement means only a GOP candidate who took the petition route alone could be denied party membership – and couldn’t run as a Republican.

However, under SB54 as now written, if a GOP candidate in party convention got not even one delegate vote, he would still go to the primary ballot if he got the required number of petition signatures.

Republican Party leaders don’t like that. If SB54 could somehow be changed, or if a judge so ruled, then the current convention standard of 40 percent of delegate votes to advance could be applied to even a petition-gathering candidate.

Thus, a candidate could still gather signatures, but he would have to get at least 40 percent of the delegate vote in some round of convention voting to advance to the primary election.

Such a change, however, would almost certainly be opposed by the Count My Vote organizers – who reached the SB54 compromise in 2014.

That’s because the whole point of the CMV citizen initiative petition was to allow a route to a party’s primary election other than going through the delegate/convention process.

 Said Hughes: “Evans has a tough job. He is trying to defend the party grassroots. He’s trying to defend the delegates and the convention.

“He has a three-ring circus to contend with.”

Hughes said it is time for the Republican Party to come together, to stop the internal fighting, and to resolve the SB54 issues – and do it before January, if that is possible.