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Governor, lawmakers might leave Utah election law decision to judge

FILE: Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday he's content to let a federal judge decide how to deal with the signature collecting requirements in Utah's controversial election law.
FILE: Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday he's content to let a federal judge decide how to deal with the signature collecting requirements in Utah's controversial election law.
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday he's content to let a federal judge decide how to deal with the signature collecting requirements in Utah's controversial election law.

And Republican legislative leaders now appear less likely to propose changes before the Legislature adjourns Thursday.

"I understand the conflict. I think the judge is going to have to give us clarity and certainty," the governor said.

U.S. District Judge David Nuffer signaled last week that the signature gathering thresholds for Republican state House and Senate candidates to get on the primary election ballot are too high and might be unconstitutional. Dozens of candidates are circulating petitions under the law, and some have completed them.

GOP legislative leaders are considering their options, including running legislation to lower the thresholds before the Legislature adjourns Thursday.

"We'll have to wait and see what the Legislature decides to do," Herbert said. "But as for me, again, I'm happy to have the courts make the decision and bring the clarity that we need to have as a state."

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, sounded much less enthusiastic about the possibility of legislative action this session, a day after telling the House GOP caucus he wanted to try for a compromise.

"I don't know. I want to do something. It's my instinct that we should. But what? That's the million-dollar question. I don’t see it yet. I don’t see a path," the speaker said. "We've got very different perspectives from the House and the Senate, with the governor."

Some legislators want to pass a bill, while others want to leave it to the court, said Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe.

Throw in that this is an election year for all House members and half the Senate, and that makes it a thorny issue. Many Republican delegates don't like the signature gathering option in the law, passed two years ago as SB54. Candidates may also seek nomination for office through Utah's long-standing caucus and convention system.

"The politics are really difficult in the Legislature right now," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.

Niederhauser said he doesn't want a situation where the House passes a bill changing the signature thresholds and the Senate does not, or vice versa.

"That's the challenge we face with this," he said.

Nuffer found signature gathering percentage requirements for Republicans in House district races range from 7.1 percent to 57.2 percent. Senate district range from 6.2 percent to 30.8 percent. Anything exceeding 5 percent can be found unconstitutional, he wrote.

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, introduced a bill to set the percentage for all elected offices to 2 percent. It hasn't been assigned to a standing committee.

Senate leaders mentioned 3 percent as workable, but Okerlund said he's not aware of anything concrete moving forward in the Senate at this point.

Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans has asked lawmakers not pass a bill lowering the threshold because it would eliminate the need for candidates to go through the convention.

The Utah GOP sued the state over SB54 to preserve the caucus and convention as the only path for securing a spot on the primary ballot.

Hughes said he has talked with legislative leaders, the Utah GOP and Count My Vote, the group that ran an initiative petition for direct primaries but later deferred to SB54 as a compromise.

"I'm concerned. I really am. I don't like the idea that the judiciary will decide something," he said. "I'd like us to do it. But it's a hard one."

Still, Hughes said, "never say never," even though he said the odds are against a compromise at this point.

County My Vote officials have said if the Legislature guts or repeals SB54 it would bring back its initiative for a direct primary election.

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com

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