A bill before the Legislature to allow for runoff elections in primary races reportedly enjoys solid support on Capitol Hill, which means we may finally and thankfully see an end to a tiresome three-year-old legal battle between the state and the Republican Party. The measure would address concerns about candidates being able to make it on a general election ballot by winning a primary race with a plurality, instead of a majority of votes. As written, the bill appears to be a reasonable way to settle a matter that’s been a source of exasperation for party leaders and state elections officials.
The measure, SB114, would require a runoff election in a primary race if no candidate receives at least 35 percent of the vote. As it stands, in a race with multiple candidates, the highest vote getter moves to the general election ballot regardless of the percentage of votes he or she receives. The issue arises from a controversial 2014 law passed in deference to a statewide initiative petition drive that would have replaced the GOP’s traditional convention-caucus system with mandatory primary elections. The 2014 bill created a dual path to nomination, allowing candidates to bypass the convention and get their names on a primary ballot by gathering a sufficient number of voter signatures.
But party leaders, protective of the caucus system, challenged the constitutionality of the law in court, sparking an expensive and time-consuming legal battle. Among their concerns is the possibility that a candidate could emerge from a race involving multiple candidates with a relatively small percentage of the vote. SB114 would address that issue by establishing a somewhat arbitrary threshold of 35 percent of the vote for a candidate to make it onto the general election ballot.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who was also the architect of the 2014 bill intended to appease backers of the Count My Vote initiative. “As a state, we need to have closure on our election process,” he told the Deseret News. “We take that very seriously. We’d like to find a resolution to the disagreements.”
A fair resolution would be a good thing, ending a battle that essentially centers on the allocation of influence in choosing candidates. We have long been supportive of measures that open the ballot to more viewpoints. The caucus and convention system conferred too much sway to party activists. The question of plurality, however, is a legitimate one, and Bramble’s bill addresses it sufficiently.
Utah would become the 12th state to allow for runoff elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Two states, North Carolina and South Dakota, have laws that trigger runoffs if a candidate does not receive a certain percentage of the vote — 40 percent in North Carolina and 35 percent in South Dakota. While it would be preferable for candidates to be chosen with a majority of voter support, the reality is that in races with multiple candidates, that’s not always going to happen. Setting the bar at a level around a little more than a third of the total vote seems a reasonable compromise.
SB114 has passed through committee and will be heard on the Senate floor. GOP leaders have pledged to drop their legal challenge to the current law if they are satisfied with changes made by fresh legislation. Hopefully, the runoff proposal can resolve a dispute that has placed campaign laws on unsure footing during the last three election cycles.