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Another attempt surfaces to undo SB54 changes to Utah candidate nomination process

Proposal coming from lawmaker who says sponsoring those changes in 2014 was ‘a mistake’

The recently proposed HB313 would significantly weaken SB54, last year’s Count My Vote compromise. Utah Republican Party leaders and some legislators have labored to overturn or weaken the provisions of SB54. Shutterstock

SALT LAKE CITY — A sponsor of a controversial law passed in 2014 that changed the candidate nomination process said Monday it was a mistake he hopes to fix with a new proposal giving political parties the option of returning to a system that doesn’t allow the signature-gathering path to the ballot.

“It’s no secret that it has been a contentious issue still within the Republican Party. In some ways, the Legislature has been at odds with its own, the Republican members at least,” said Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, the sponsor of SB91, the bill intended to resolve issues surrounding the 2014 law still know as SB54.

“We had hoped that we’d eventually find peace and that there would be, you know, kind of a settling. There hasn’t been, and at the end of the day, we can’t continue to work together with our party and work together on good policy if we’re constantly distracted by the nominating process,” he said.

The Utah Republican Party unsuccessfully sued the state over the compromise lawmakers made six years ago with organizers of the Count My Vote initiative to stop their effort to replace the traditional caucus and convention system used by political parties to nominate candidates with a direct primary election.

That compromise kept the traditional system but also created an alternative way to get on a primary ballot, gathering voter signatures. Candidates can choose either — or both — paths, leading this year to the possibility of six gubernatorial contenders on the June GOP primary ballot.

“As I look back on it, i think it was a mistake. I don’t think we should have jumped in the middle of the fray. We should have let the initiative go and we should have let the people have some finality to it,” McCay, a former House member, said of serving as the House sponsor of SB54.

McCay said his new bill will 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.

“The math of it will be that there will be more primaries,” he said, in addition to limiting the number of candidates that can advance to a primary ballot to just two for those political parties choosing the new nomination option.

Both McCay and Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said it’s not a given that Republicans would make that choice, although Brown acknowledged he’d be surprised if they didn’t. But Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said Democrats have no interest in what he called an effort to limit voter participation in the nomination process.

“Personally, I feel like this has gone on long enough. I feel like SB54 was, in my understanding, a compromise on the Republican Party side. The Democratic Party has long been an open party,” Merchant said. Democrats allow all voters to cast ballots in their primary elections unlike Republicans, who close their primaries to nonmembers.

“We want to have an open process and make sure anyone with an interest in politics can participate,” Merchant said. “In general, as Democrats, we would oppose any legislation that would limit any individual’s ability to participate in the selection of elected officials.”

Brown, however, said the decision of how candidates are nominated should be up to political parties.

“Everyone sort of assumes that if the Legislature gives that option, they would undeniably choose it. But I don’t know if that’s the case. All I know is that the real concern that we’ve had as a party is that we haven’t had the choice,” he said. “Really, it’s about autonomy. It’s about giving the party the ability to make a decision themselves.”

Only a handful of Republicans have been elected without being advanced by party delegates, Brown said, including U.S. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, who lost the delegate vote to Chris Herrod, but won the special primary election in 2017 because he had also gathered voter signatures to secure a spot on the ballot.

Republican voters who like the options they have now under the dual-track system should “get involved in the party,” Brown said. “That’s my ultimate goal, to ensure that as many people as possible ... feel like they have a place and an active role in the Republican Party. When more people are involved, you have a better result.”

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

“I think you’d have to count on the persistence of this group,” said Rich McKeown, Count My Vote executive co-chairman. McKeown, who served as chief of staff to former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt, another Count My Vote organizer, said the goal all along has been to get more voters to the polls.

The proposed legislation doesn’t “address the real issue of participation,” he said.

The new option to revert back to using only the caucus and convention system to select primary candidates “means that the parties themselves just decide who the candidates are and they eliminate lots of people from participation,” McKeown said.

He said the dual system “has an imminent fairness about it. Because if you like the old-style politics, you do it through the convention. If you like the signature path, then you have the option to get on the ballot that way. The issue that we ought to limit the people on the ballot, look at the presidential race.”

This year, there’s still a crowded race for the Democratic Party nomination even as the field has shrunk from around two dozen candidates, while in 2016, some 17 Republicans jockeyed for the spot claimed by now President Donald Trump.

McKeown agreed there are parts of SB54 that need fixing, including what to do if no candidate gets a majority in a primary election. That issue, he said, could be fixed by holding a runoff election after a primary, a solution from Count My Vote’s second initiative.

But overall, McKeown said, “we believe that we’ve, over the course of time, arrived at a pretty balanced way to do it. With a few tweaks, it could be just a really, really solid system.”

McCay said he isn’t sure how far his new bill will go this session, or whether it could wind up being changed to put a question before primary voters about whether they want political parties to have the option he’s proposing, something that’s being discussed.

“There’s a ton of issue fatigue, right, on everybody’s side,” he said. “So the question is, do we keep having it.”