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Changes coming to primary elections in 2016

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah voters will see a new primary elections system in 2016 that allows candidates to bypass the state’s caucus and convention system, despite efforts by the Republican-controlled Legislature to stop the change.

“(Next year) is going to be very exciting,” said Taylor Morgan, executive director of Count My Vote, an initiative that morphed into SB54 — a compromise reached during the 2014 Legislature that created the new primary system. “It’s going to be the first time that we have this new accessible system with a direct primary alternative.”

Still, the 2015 Legislature ended Thursday with some lingering uncertainty. Four bills that sought to undo, delay or alter SB54 failed during the session, but there's still a loose end that could unravel the law.

The Utah Republican Party has filed a lawsuit to halt SB54, claiming the law is unconstitutional and that parties should be free to determine how to nominate candidates.

State Elections Director Mark Thomas said “it’s hard to say at this point” how the judge will rule on the lawsuit, which as the potential to completely dismantle, partially alter or approve SB54.

“The 2016 election voters need to stay tuned because we need to get that answer from the courts,” Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said.

A hearing in federal court on an injunction sought by the party against SB54 was previously delayed until after the 2015 Legislature in case changes were made to the law. But now, with no alterations made to SB54, the lawsuit will move forward.

Evans said an injunction hearing is set for April 10, though a final ruling on the lawsuit may not come until the end of this year or early 2016.

“All we can do is make our case, and we believe that the actions are not constitutional,” he said. “We need that constitutional clarity from the courts, and that’s why we’re asking for that so that everyone will know how to proceed moving forward.”

However, Taylor Morgan, executive director of Count My Vote, said just like he was sure lawmakers would “uphold their end of last year’s deal,” he has faith in the attorney general’s and governor’s offices' ability to defend the law.

“Utahns shouldn’t feel concerned or any uncertainty about that lawsuit,” Morgan said. “We’re confident that SB54 will be upheld and that this new system will go forward.”

If the law stands

If that’s the case, SB54 would allow 2016 candidates to secure a spot on the primary ballot by either gathering voter signatures or participating in the current system in which delegates are selected at party caucus meetings to choose nominees.

Morgan said voters can expect to be engaged by candidates who are gathering signatures before the primary next year.

Count My Vote’s goal “has always been to increase (voter) participation,” he said, so having more candidates on the ballot will engage more voters in the process. Additionally, SB54 will allow those who are unaffiliated with a political party to vote, Morgan said.

“We want more people in the system, more people having a voice,” he said. “The more candidates competing for their votes, the better that will be for Utah.”

Throughout the 2015 Legislature, Evans had spoken in favor of bills that would delay the implementation of SB54, arguing that the party would not have enough time before the 2016 election to make the internal changes needed to comply with requirements of the new law, which would include opening primary elections to those unaffiliated voters.

But while voters face uncertainty with the lawsuit, they can be certain about the Republican Party’s intentions, he said.

“We want to make sure that we have a robust election and that we get Republicans elected and re-elected to office,” Evans said.

Thomas said lawmakers share some concerns with GOP leaders regarding SB54. One concern, which lingers due to the demise of HB313 late Thursday, rises from the fact that SB54 allows an unlimited number of possible candidates and could result in situations where a nominee is chosen by less than 50 percent of the vote.

Thomas said the plurality issue is a “legitimate concern,” not just for Utah, but for states across the nation.

Morgan said SB54 was drafted knowing there was potential for problems, including plurality, but it was passed with a mentality that those issues could be addressed later.

“What we hope is Utahns will be able to experience at least one cycle with this new system, and then at that point, after we’ve actually experienced the system, we would then kind of take stock and see if it does need to be addressed in some way,” he said.

But lawmakers may not choose to wait, and the 2016 Legislature would provide another opportunity to pass legislation to confront the issue.

Evans said he’s not concerned about the current status of SB54, even if the lawsuit falls through, because lawmakers would still have next session to address it.

“We have time,” he said.

Presidential election

While voters face some uncertainty with the state’s primary election, they can know what to expect for the 2016 presidential election.

Despite a statement from former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney asking Gov. Gary Herbert and state lawmakers to make sure Utah holds a presidential primary election next year, the Republican Party voted to switch to a caucus election.

“Every Utah voter deserves to have their vote counted in the selection of the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 2016,” Romney said in a letter delivered to Herbert earlier this month.

Legislators considered a bill this session would have set a date for a presidential primary, but it stalled before the session ended.

Evans announced the state GOP's intentions to hold a caucus vote on March 22, the day when Republicans will meet to choose delegates for party nominating conventions. He said he’d back the bill for a presidential primary because he didn’t want to prevent other parties from using a state-operated primary election to pick a candidate, but the bill was abandoned nonetheless.

Morgan said because presidential elections generally produce the highest turnout, “it’s unfortunate that the party made that choice” because the decision follows Utah’s history of a “mentality that party insiders should be able to choose candidates on behalf of all voters.”

But Evans said the decision to hold a caucus vote for the Republican presidential nominee next year will encourage more Utahns to participate in the process. The party plans to allow online voting by registered Republicans on the annual caucus night, which is also March 22. He said that will be the only vote to be recognized by the Republican National Committee.

Online voting, Evans said, will “increase voter participation far beyond what the state has been able to do.”

Thomas said it would have cost the state $3 million to hold a presidential primary, which may not have been "best fiscally to do."