Special Session to Fix Election Law Problems Looking Less Likely

Utah State CapitolWhile “hope springs eternal,” as one Capitol Hill source put it, a meeting Monday night between GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and Republican leaders in the state House and Senate resulted in no agreement on a special session before all lawmakers meet the end of January.

Several sources told UtahPolicy that the leaders couldn’t agree on an approach both to several SB54 issues and fixes to the court ruled unconstitutional State School Board election process.

So, at least for now, there will be no special session unless there is movement in either the Senate or House Republican caucuses.

As reported previously in UtahPolicy, some incumbent lawmakers would like the candidate filing deadlines in SB54 to be combined.

And there is the ongoing dispute – as claimed by Utah Republican Party leaders – that a candidate taking only the petition-gathering route as allowed by SB54 to a political party’s primary election ballot violates party rules. And so such candidates could legally be kicked out of the party – denied a place on the GOP ballot.

Finally, a court has ruled unconstitutional the current bifurcated State School Board election process.

That means, says Herbert, that unless the Legislature changes the process, anyone who files for the board in 2016 will go directly to the general election ballot – there will be no primary election for those seats – resulting in a huge candidate field for voters to pick from next November.

And the final winners could end up with a small plurality – maybe even 20 percent or so.

Herbert has said the Legislature should at least provide for a primary to whittle down the State Board of Education field in each district up for election.

But Senate Republicans want a partisan vote, the House Republicans a non-partisan election, and no one wants the option of having the governor just pick the board members.

A stalemate, apparently.

Under SB54, legislative and statewide candidates who chose to take either the petition gathering route only or chose to take the petition route AND the delegate/convention route at the same time, must declare their candidacy and start collecting voter signatures Jan. 4.

Candidates taking only the delegate/convention route don’t file until mid-March, the regular candidate filing deadline.

Many legislators have already said they plan to take both routes – as allowed under SB54.

That makes sense since under the new law a candidate taking both routes COULD NOT be eliminated in the state convention by delegates. Why even take that risk, small as it may be for popular incumbents?

If the candidate got the required voter signatures – 1,000 for a House candidate, 2,000 for a Senate candidate – they automatically advance to the party’s primary ballot no matter where they may finish in the convention delegate vote.

But there are several political/strategy implications with one set of candidates declaring Jan. 4, another set declaring mid-March – after the 2016 Legislature’s general session ends.

One issue – Legislative attorneys have warned incumbents – is that if they have volunteers out gathering voter signatures during the 45-day session when by law legislators can’t solicit or accept campaign donations — the volunteers’ hours could be seen as an in-kind campaign contribution, and incumbents found in violation of campaign laws.

In any case, sources tell UtahPolicy, after Monday night’s meeting there is not agreement on a special session agenda.

And Herbert – who calls special sessions and sets the agenda – won’t be taking such action unless some compromises are found.