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Some in Utah GOP continue fight for doomed candidate nomination bill

Keep My Voice supporters applaud Greg Hughes, former Utah House speaker and 2020 Utah gubernatorial candidate, as he speaks during a Keep My Voice rally at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. Keep My Voice is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for Utah’s caucus-convention election system.
Keep My Voice supporters applaud Greg Hughes, former Utah House speaker and 2020 Utah gubernatorial candidate, as he speaks during a Keep My Voice rally at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. Keep My Voice is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for Utah’s caucus-convention election system.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Backers of a bill to revise Utah’s controversial candidate nomination law that the Senate won’t hear and the governor won’t sign continue to make their case for a choice they say lawmakers took away.

“What we need is for the governor to tell the Senate to let the people decide,” said Phill Wright, executive director of Keep My Voice.

Wright was among several dozen people, including two Republican candidates for governor, who called for the Legislature on Thursday to pass a proposal that would give political parties the option of returning to a system that doesn’t allow candidates to collect signatures to get on the primary election ballot.

The Utah GOP unsuccessfully sued the state over the compromise lawmakers made in 2014 with organizers of the Count My Vote initiative, stopping the campaign’s effort to scrap the traditional caucus and convention system used by political parties to nominate candidates in favor of a direct primary election.

That compromise, passed as SB54, kept the traditional system but also allowed candidates to gather voter signatures to qualify for the primary election. Candidates can choose either — or both — paths, leading this year to the possibility of seven gubernatorial contenders on the June GOP primary ballot.

This year’s SB91, sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, would permit parties to use only the convention system, a choice Wright says the current law took away. McCay sponsored the compromise bill six years ago but now says it was a mistake.

The bill also attempts to solve the issue of a candidate winning a primary election with only a plurality of the vote rather than the majority, in addition to raising the threshold for a candidate to be nominated outright at convention from 60% to two-thirds of the vote by party delegates.

With seven gubernatorial candidates possibly on the GOP primary ballot, one might not get 50% of the vote, Wright said. The winner might receive less than 30% of the vote, meaning 70% of voters chose someone else, he said.

“What happened to making your vote count?” Wright said.

The bill, though, isn’t likely to find its way to the governor’s desk, and Gov. Gary Herbert has said he would use his veto pen if it does.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said with a new governor coming in next year — Herbert is not seeking reelection — it might be a good time “stand down” on the issue.

The Legislature might have the votes to pass the measure, but it doesn’t have the votes to override a veto, said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

The organizers of Count My Vote, which attempted a second initiative in 2018 to deal with plurality and other concerns that failed after GOP activists were able to convince enough voters to remove their names, aren’t ruling out another petition drive.

Count My Vote applauded Herbert and legislative leaders for their commitment to “uphold and defend” SB54, said spokesman Taylor Morgan.

“Utah’s election process is working better than ever, and the overwhelming majority of Utahns strongly support the dual path,” Morgan said. “Voters in all parties are actively participating in choosing their candidates, rather than a select few doing it for them.”

Wright said he believes lawmakers would pass SB91 and that contrary to what Herbert has said, he would sign it.

Two GOP gubernatorial candidates, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, said they would sign the bill if elected.

“It needs to happen this session, but whenever, I’m with you,” said Hughes, who is not collecting signatures.

Winder Newton abandoned her signature-gathering efforts, citing the cost of having to hire a firm to do that. She said she’s not going to write a $200,000 check to “buy my way onto the ballot.”

Both Hughes and Winder Newton will rely on delegates to get them to the primary election.