SALT LAKE CITY — A lawmaker is resurrecting a bill that would take a step back from a controversial law passed several years ago that allows candidates for political office to gather voter signatures.
“When we look back at SB54 over the last seven years and look at the effect of having the signature path, there are a few unintended consequences of SB54,” Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, told members of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee on Monday.
That law, which McCay co-sponsored in 2014, kept the traditional system but also created an alternative way to get on a primary ballot through gathering voter signatures. Candidates can choose either — or both — paths, leading last year to the possibility of six gubernatorial contenders on the June GOP primary ballot.
McCay’s new bill, SB205, would give political parties the option of returning to a system that doesn’t allow the signature gathering path to the ballot. The bill received a 7-1 favorable recommendation from the committee and will move to the full Senate for consideration.
Creating four types of parties
The bill would create four classes of political parties based on how they select candidates. The classes would include parties that choose candidates through convention-only and agree to send the top two nominees to primary unless one gets at least two-thirds of the caucus vote; those that choose candidates through both signature gathering and/or convention; those that choose candidates by signature gathering only; and those that choose candidates by another method.
The bill is virtually identical to a bill McCay ran last year, which stalled before the end of the legislative session.
Initiatives and referenda have increased over time until they’ve reached a “record-breaking” number for Utah, McCay said.
“And those initiatives going up is our really No. 1 concern with the signature industry. And we’ve created this closet industry of signature gathering,” he said.
He said candidates are now out gathering signatures through people who get paid per signature. But the initiative and recall processes are driving other states into “very interesting policy choices.”
McCay pointed to a political analyst who called the initiative process “a blunt tool that ends up killing a legislative process.”
A lot of money is getting spent in politics through the initiative process, he said, with about $2.5 million over the last six years. Yet 99.3% of the elections still get won by candidates who qualify for the ballot through the convention process, McCay noted.
The signature gathering process also increases incumbent protection as they have “name recognition and the ability to fundraise,” the senator said.
‘Suppressing voters’ or giving parties autonomy?
Lauren Simpson, policy director with Alliance for a Better Utah, called the bill “an attempt to suppress moderate candidates within the Republican Party. In reality, political parties should be beholden to the voters who make up those political parties and not the other way around.”
Taylor Morgan, with Count My Vote, said the signature gathering process has “been a tremendous success.”
“We have seen more candidates in more competition for nomination up and down the ballot in both major parties. Voter engagement in Utah’s primary and general elections has increased,” Morgan said.
The state experienced the second-highest rate of increase in voter participation in the country between 2016 and 2020, he said.
“SB54 is not perfect. The current signature thresholds for many offices are untenable. They limit access and increase cost for candidates. Plurality is also an ongoing concern,” Morgan acknowledged.
He said Count My Vote wants to work with lawmakers to make the law better, but SB205 would “undo the landmark SB54 compromise, eliminate the dual path to the primary ballot and exclude hundreds of thousands of active, affiliated Utah voters from voting for their parties’ nominees and candidates for public office.”
Derek Brown, chairman of Utah Republican Party, said the party has shown “that the convention system can not only be effective, but it was flexible and was able to accommodate a lot of the problems that we saw.”
The party previously sued the state over SB54, which was passed through a compromise with organizers of the Count My Vote initiative to stop the group’s effort to replace the traditional caucus and convention system used by political parties to nominate candidates with a direct primary election. The lawsuit was unsuccessful.
In many cases, all candidates who are running for a position have collected signatures, Brown said, explaining that the party is “sort of, we’re just wasting time. We’re just spinning our wheels.”
“In addition to the many problems that the current system created, one of the things we’ve seen is that it had very minimal impact in terms of the results,” he said of signature gathering.
SB205 would give parties autonomy to do what they choose, Brown said.
Resident Shelly Cluff said signature gathering has provided a “check” for the caucus system.
“I find it problematic, any system that is inherently limiting to public participation. The caucus system is a great example of this,” Cluff said.
As a delegate, she said she’s rallied neighbors but still seen “minimal turnout” on caucus night. Many of her neighbors who are informed about politics don’t understand how the caucus works and don’t participate. For some like her with small children, it’s difficult to make it to a meeting at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night, according to Cluff.
“I think we are served by having both in the system,” she said.
Alan Wessman, a Spanish Fork resident, said he believes the dual path has been “beneficial.”
“The changes that have been proposed seem to overly complicate the process of designating political parties ... leading to more regulations that need to be jumped through,” Wessman said.
“I understand how people are elected is a sensitive issue,” McCay said. “I guess the question you have to balance is we need a process that is open, inclusive, everyone can be involved.”
The pandemic created issues for the signature gathering method of qualifying for the ballot, McCay noted. With unknowns as the pandemic continues.
“The idea of sending people door to door with signature gathering seems a little bit questionable,” he said.
The bill would give parties “the opportunity really to kind of make a choice” of how to select candidates, according to McCay.
Senate Budget Vice Chairman Don Ipson, R-St. George, said he would support the bill but encouraged McCay to work with Count My Vote.
In a statement after the committee hearing, the United Utah Party expressed concerns the bill would “undo the landmark 2014 SB54 compromise.”
“Despite the fact that Utah voters overwhelmingly favor the current, more inclusive system, the Republican majority in the Legislature has long opposed reforms that give Utah voters choices beyond what the GOP party leadership is willing to sanction,” United Utah leaders said.
United Utah officials contend the Republican Party “brought itself to the brink of financial ruin with a series of frivolous and expensive lawsuits voters designed to thwart the clear will of the voters.”
“It is disappointing, but not surprising, that Republican legislators have once again chosen to put their own partisan interests ahead of those of the people they were elected to represent,” the United Utah Party said in the statement.