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Lawmakers may not agree on how to handle election plurality

Lawmakers may not be able to come up with a proposal during the legislative interim to prevent a candidate from winning a primary election without a majority vote, a co-chairman of a committee studying the issue said Wednesday.
Lawmakers may not be able to come up with a proposal during the legislative interim to prevent a candidate from winning a primary election without a majority vote, a co-chairman of a committee studying the issue said Wednesday.
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SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers may not be able to come up with a proposal during the legislative interim to prevent a candidate from winning a primary election without a majority vote, a co-chairman of a committee studying the issue said Wednesday.

"This one is an interesting one because we could do nothing and just see how things shake out in 2016," Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, said after the Government Operations Interim Committee's first hearing on the possibly of plurality.

Draxler, the committee's House chairman, said he'd be surprised if members can come to a consensus on how to handle the issue created by SB54, the compromise reached to stop the Count My Vote initiative that sought a direct primary.

The controversial legislation allows candidates starting in 2016 to bypass the state's unique caucus and convention system for choosing nominees and instead gather voter signatures to qualify for a spot on the primary election ballot.

But with more than two candidates on the ballot, the top vote-getter in the primary may end up becoming a political party's nominee with only a plurality of the vote, not the majority.

"There are people who don’t like the idea of a less-than-majority candidate representing their party," Draxler said. "I think that’s legitmate. So we’ll see where it goes."

The committee was presented with several options that will be studied in the coming months. Draxler said the committee will attempt to choose between them in October or November to see if a bill can be backed in the 2016 Legislature.

Committee member Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said he's not convinced that plurality is a problem, especially since 36 states allow candidates without a majority to advance to a general election ballot.

Options for addressing plurality include advancing only the top two vote-getters to the general election regardless of political party, holding a runoff election, switching to a preferential or ranked ballot, or sending the decision back to the political party.

Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, who tried to get lawmakers to deal with the issue last session, used an Australian video on that country's preferential voting in his presentation to the committee.

Preferential voting allowing voters to rank their choices so candidates benefit from being a second or even lower choice if the first-place finisher doesn't have a majority.

Had such a system been in place in 2012, Roberts said then-Rep. Jim Matheson would have lost to current Rep. Mia Love because there were other candidates. Matheson, a Democrat who did not seek re-election in 2014, won by only 768 votes.

Roberts also pitched allowing delegates to pick the nominee at a special party convention if no candidate gets a majority. He said while there are a number of options, lawmakers need to address the issue.

Concerns were raised, however, about voters being turned off by the complexity of a preferential system or being excluded by giving delegates the final decision over a nominee.

State Elections Director Mark Thomas focused on the additional expense to the state. Going to preferential voting would require new voting machines and a "signficant" voter education effort.

Using a runoff to come up with a nominee with a majority of the vote would mean an additional election and likely shifting primary dates, Thomas said, noting a statewide special election carries a $3 million price tag.

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