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Count My Vote supporters, GOP split over SB54's impact on primaries

FILE: Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans.
FILE: Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans.
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Tuesday's primary was the first election that allowed candidates to gather signatures and bypass Utah's caucus and convention system to earn a spot on the ballot.

What impact, if any, SB54 had on the election, however, depends on who you ask.

Supporters of the County My Vote compromise law say there's no doubt it had a positive impact on Tuesday's primary election, giving voters more and therefore better choices.

"It was a big success," said longtime Count My Vote proponent and former Gov. Mike Leavitt. "There were a large number of candidates who did get signatures, and as a result there were primaries held that would not have been held. And people won who (otherwise) would have been eliminated."

Leavitt said he believes the new law also likely contributed to Tuesday's 22 percent turnout, the highest voter engagement since 1992 — the last time Utah had both statewide Republican and Democratic primaries.

But the Utah Republican Party stands firm against the new law, saying it made little difference Tuesday and has been a "waste of money."

"It had no impact," said James Evans, chairman of the Utah County Republican Party. "Over 95 percent of convention candidates were sustained by the primary voters. To me, that's an overwhelming response."

One changed outcome

Evans noted that candidates who qualified for Tuesday's primary only because they used SB54's signature-gathering path to the ballot failed in all but one race.

Randy Elliott defeated Steve Hiatt in the GOP race for the Davis County Commission, even though Hiatt won the party's nomination at the convention in April. The only reason Elliott made it on the ballot was because he gathered signatures.

In other races where signature-gatherers forced primaries, candidates who won party nomination at convention also beat their opponents Tuesday, including Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, who beat signature-gatherer Rich Cunningham; and Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, who defeated opponent Xanie Haynie.

But for Elliott, SB54 is the reason he's advancing to November's general election.

"The voters saw that I worked hard and I was a good candidate," he said, noting that he was criticized at the April convention for gathering signatures.

"I think it's important that the voices of the (voters) are heard, because there's a majority of people who don't have the time to participate in the caucus. I want to represent the people and the party, so I'm just glad I could represent those voices as well," Elliott said.

Voters, not delegates

Regardless of how many race outcomes SB54 impacted Tuesday, Leavitt said it still fulfilled its purpose: Voters, not just "party insiders," had a say in the election.

"Most (party nominees) still won," Leavitt acknowledged, "but they had to campaign. They had to put out their ideas. And the people got to choose. They got to have their vote count, and in the past they haven't."

In the Utah House of Representatives, "several (seats) … would have been filled with 50 people making the decision," Leavitt said.

"A decision made by 2,000 or 4,000 people is going to be, first of all, a better decision, and second of all, it's a more democratic process," he said.

The point of SB54, Leavitt added, was to create an alternative path to the ballot, not to give signature-gatherers an advantage over convention nominees.

About 100 candidates from across the state — including Gov. Gary Herbert —decided to gather signatures as a way to guarantee their place on the primary ballot, even though many ended up earning enough delegate support to force a primary anyway.

"The reality is there needs to be an alternative because the conventions are not proportionate," Leavitt said, citing Jonathan Johnson's convention victory over Herbert.

Facing criticism at the party convention in April over his choice to gather signatures, Herbert received less than 50 percent of the delegate vote but soundly defeated Johnson on Tuesday with more than 72 percent of the popular vote.

Party disconnect

Boyd Matheson, president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank, said the primary election highlighted a disconnect between delegates and regular voters.

"I think it's going to open up a new dialogue about the caucus and convention system," Matheson said. "I think both parties are on the verge of losing their relevance primarily because they are not giving people good reasons to associate."

Utahns care more about candidates' principles and polices, he said, not how they get on the ballot.

Evans, however, said the state GOP will be "even more organized" in future elections to support candidates who "represent the Republican brand" and uphold the party's principles.

"Any wise candidate would see that it's a much better bet that they have a significantly greater chance of success by going through the caucus-convention system," he said.

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: KatieMcKellar1