Lawmakers Bracing for Last-Minute Fight Over ‘Count My Vote’ Compromise

Utah State Capitol 17There could be a last-minute, huge fight over SB54 as the Utah Legislature rushes to adjournment Thursday at midnight, UtahPolicy has learned.

Monday morning, Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber, introduced HB481, which would “fix” the signature percentage problem which could be ruled unsatisfactory by Federal Court Judge David Nuffer. He issued an advisory on the case Friday afternoon.

You can read the advisory here.

Powell’s bill would change all the candidate signature requirements to 2 percent of the candidate’s political party members living in his or her district.

State Republican Party leaders have sued twice over SB54, the 2014 compromise law with the Count My Vote citizen initiative petition, which would have put all candidates in primary elections, bypassing hard-core party delegate conventions.

In the latest suit, the GOP claims the required signature numbers – 1,000 for a Utah State House seat, 2,000 for a Senate seat, 28,000 for a statewide seat, like governor – are too large, and thus too hard to reach and unconstitutional.

Powell told UtahPolicy that there were several “fixes” floating around Capitol hallways, including repealing SB54 altogether.

An independent Capitol source confirmed that repeal may again be voted on in the final four days of this session.

Earlier this session the Utah House killed an attempt to repeal SB54, with House Speaker Greg Hughes saying he is a man of his word and he would oppose repealing the compromise bill – much hated by Republican Party leaders and many delegates.

Powell said he had not talked to House leaders as of Monday morning. He drafted his bill over the weekend, after reading Nuffer’s advisory.

In a Monday morning statement, Hughes told UtahPolicy: “The (SB54) compromise was only agreed to with the understanding that the signature thresholds had to be significant, and not just a formality.

“Judge Nuffer has now indicated these thresholds may be unconstitutional, which could harm the compromise.

“We are evaluating his actions and deciding if we take action during this legislative session,” said Hughes, R-Draper.

Powell himself has – as have about two dozen other lawmakers at this time – already collected the 1,000 signatures required by the current SB54. And he has a “certification” letter from Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox telling him he will be on the late June GOP primary ballot for his House District 54.

Unless Nuffer or some other judge orders him off the ballot, Powell, an attorney, assumes he is good to go, and his GOP delegates in April convention will not be able to deny him his party’s re-nomination – only District 54 GOP voters in June could do that.

“My solution does fix” the problems raised in the Nuffer ruling/GOP lawsuit, said Powell.

With his tongue firmly in his cheek, Powell told UtahPolicy: “The Republican Party is saying in their lawsuit that the SB54 signature levels are too high, too hard. I appreciate (the party’s) concern. And I’m glad (in his new bill) to lower those percentages, so it is easier to gather the signatures and make the primary ballot.”

Of course, the state GOP didn’t want just to lower the percentages, but find all or parts of SB54 unconstitutional, and thus unenforceable, throwing ALL GOP candidates back into their county or state party conventions, and deny candidates the signature path to getting on the primary ballot.

Powell said his new bill does two things – both raised as concerns by Nuffer’s Friday ruling:

  • Make all candidates’ signature thresholds at 2 percent of registered party voters in their respective districts – a threshold seemed acceptable to Nuffer.
  • Removes the requirement that a voter could only sign one candidate signature.

Under his bill, a petition signer could put his name on any number of candidate petitions.

Powell and the Capitol source said, following Nuffer’s ruling, leaders are looking at “several fixes.”

Nuffer has asked the state AG and party lawyers to brief what some of those “fixes” could be and meet with him again next Monday – after the Utah Legislature has adjourned.

Powell said if lawmakers and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert agree with HB481 the judge’s concerns should be answered.

“I drafted the law” along the lines of Nuffer’s ruling, attempting to deal with his concerns.

Powell said Nuffer could ultimately do several things, including:

  • Disallowing all signature candidates, throwing everyone into their party conventions this spring for delegates to decide.
  • Allow candidates, like Powell, who have gathered signatures under the old SB54 rules, and been certified by the lieutenant governor, on to the June party primary ballots.
  • Allow all signature candidates to continue through the process for this election year – and if they get their signatures under the old rules, they make the ballot.
  • Or if HB481 (or some other legislative fix) takes place before Monday’s hearing, let those changes stand for this election year, as long as they are constitutional.
  • Or make some other kind of ruling.

In any case, said Powell, who voted against repealing SB54 earlier in the session: “My bill is an easy fix to the problems,” if legislators wish to do so.