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Fixing Utah’s elections starts with fixing SB54

SHARE Fixing Utah’s elections starts with fixing SB54

Bradford Mosteller cuts “I Voted” stickers on the first day of early voting at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office in the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Recently, much has been written about the problem of primary elections in Utah being won without a majority vote when there are more than two candidates. Some have suggested “ranked-choice” voting, but many voters would likely not understand or feel comfortable with this method. Others have suggested runoff elections, but these would cause additional uncertainty, confusion and expense for campaigns, many of which are already stretched-thin financially.  

Instead, I recommend that we focus on the cause of the problem in the first place. Namely, fix SB54. SB54 is the 2014 law that allows politicians with lots of money to run around Utah’s traditional caucus/convention system. Our caucus/convention system is a valuable grassroots process that helps level the playing field for candidates, vets them in meaningful ways and results in a maximum of two candidates for the primary.   

But SB54 unjustly undermines this system. Those like me who oppose SB54’s signature path are labeled as extremists, fringe, insiders, party purists, hard-liners, anachronistic and divisive. For simplicity, I’ll refer to the innocent-sounding “Count My Vote” effort (which is now essentially SB54) as “CMV.”   

SB54/CMV’s unwise signature path lets candidates muscle in (i.e., force their names onto the party’s ballot) who haven’t gone through any party qualifying or approval, simply because they have plenty of money to pay signature-gatherers. So Utah’s political parties are forced by law to bestow their brand on someone who may not even support what the party stands for. Mandating that the parties support this hijacking is government overreach and an assault on the constitutional rights of association and free speech. 

In elections, the incumbent or the candidate with lots of money and name recognition already has a big advantage. SB54/CMV tilts the field even further in favor of that candidate. Instead of “Count My Vote,” this effort could more accurately be named “Grease the Skids to Political Office for the Rich and Famous,” although that name isn’t quite as catchy.  

Thus SB54/CMV’s supposed purpose of “opening up” the political process in reality has the opposite effect. Namely, it snuffs out the already-slim chance of a bright, talented newcomer candidate who doesn’t have a wealth of name recognition or money. So SB54/CMV’s signature path eliminates a potential pool of excellent candidates, because they can’t afford to compete. This is a bad case of (dubious) ends attempting to justify the ‘means’ (heavy-handed government intrusion). There is no correlation between the ability to collect signatures and the ability to lead. 

I realize some big names and big money are partly behind keeping this mischievous signature path in place. But big names and big money don’t determine what’s right. Utah needs to once again uphold the right of private political parties to determine their own nomination process.   

Over the past several years, some of our state legislators have introduced bills to fix SB54. But these efforts have been undermined by our governor (whom I respect) stating up-front that he’ll veto them. Hopefully our new governor will be willing to help fix this problem in the upcoming legislative session.

What’s truly ‘divisive’ is SB54 itself — especially its signature path — not the Republicans who are opposed to it. The GOP’s so-called ‘infighting’ of the recent past is simply the party’s attempts to defend itself against damage from this decree. But this festering problem is still there. It will not go away by waiting, or scolding the GOP, or presenting only one side — it needs to be fixed. It’s time to be honest and repeal the mandate of this contentious, unjust signature path.

Gerald Larsen is a software engineer and a technical writer and editor.