An effort by some Utah lawmakers to crush a compromise brokered in 2014 that preserved the state’s caucus nominating election system was met with opposition Tuesday when legislators refused to extend the starting point for election reforms.
Rep. Fred C. Cox, R-West Valley City, asked the House Government Operations Committee to draw out the time table for Senate Bill 54
, which was seen as a compromise in 2014 between politicians and election activists. The bill passed by gaping margins, 22 to 4 in the senate and 49 to 20 in the house.
The activists, through a group called Count My Vote, had been collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that, if passed, would have torpedoed the state’s caucus nominating system, replacing it with a direct primary. Public opinion polls suggested at the time that a majority of Utahns favored a direct primary system.
Although the bill was signed into law nearly a year ago, the true level of ire with which Republicans in particular have regarded the bill has only recently surfaced. In December, the state’s Republican Party filed suit in federal court, arguing that the State Legislature overreached in telling political parties how they could nominate candidates.
The SB54 compromise, while falling far short of a direct primary, paved a way for candidates who didn’t want to appeal to the partisan caucus system by allowing them to gather signatures instead.
Cox argued that his House Bill 281
would aid the Republican Party by giving it more time to implement the changes required through SB54. Although he voiced his disproval that his colleagues passed SB54, he noted that his bill did nothing to alter the spirit of the bill, just delay it.
James Evans, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, said he worried that with his lawsuit pending, and various bits of legislation such as Cox’s bill being contemplated on Capitol Hill, that candidates eyeing a run at office will have a hazy set of rules to play by as the 2016 election cycle moves forward.
Evans even said that if his party can’t enact the changes it needs by the conclusion of its Aug. 1 convention, the state’s hundreds and hundreds of Republican candidates might not have an R next to their names on the ballot.
“We’re here to ensure that our candidates have a level playing field and an ability to present our platform and our values in the public arena,” Evans told the committee.
The idea, however, that Republicans in Utah somehow stand to be at a disadvantage in this reddest of red states seemed to amuse Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City. She asked if Evans could repeat his suggestion that Republicans could stand to lose out in many races if the caucus system isn’t preserved.
Evans clarified that what he meant to say was that “it’s just unfair to the candidates to have the rules change mid-stream.”
Evans’ contention that either his party couldn’t enact the changes required by SB54, or that his lawsuit has created too much confusion, wasn’t bought by the committee.
Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, pointed out the uncomfortable situation he and his fellow Republican colleagues are in when it comes to the SB54 compromise that many of them voted for, but is opposed by the party.
Nevertheless, Nelson urged his party boss to do his best to implement the measures mandated under SB54—tasks that a spokesman from the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, which is charged to enforce the state’s election laws, said was feasible.
“The credible testimony is that compliance is not impossible, compliance is possible,” Nelson said. “Just do the best you can to comply and if the party is negatively impacted by that, then we suffer those consequences.”
Absent from the discussion was a representative from the Democratic Party, which Arent said isn’t having any difficulty instituting the reforms.
Cox and Evans told the committee that the implementation date of SB54, in time for the 2016 election cycle, was random.
But Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, who helped lead the Count My Vote process, told the committee that the date brokered in the compromise was not accidental. By putting it off until 2018, as Cox’s bill proposed to do, voters would miss the chance at enjoying full participation in the governor’s race, all Utah House of Representative races and the presidential race.
Furthermore, Jowers said County My Vote is not only optimistic that the Republican challenge to SB54 will fail, but “comfortable” with the legal challenge.
“Punting to 2018 for no reason other than leadership in one party is unable or unwilling to make those changes… It essentially delays Utahns [from] participating to vote in a major election until 2020,” Jowers said. “That is significant.”
A bill identical to Cox’s HB281, Senate Bill 43
sponsored by Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, passed a senate committee on a 4 to 1 vote. Jenkins also has put forward a constitutional amendment that, if it can pass through the legislature, would go to voters. It states that the rights of a political party cannot be infringed upon by the government. This bill, Senate Joint Resolution 2
, is a direct rebuke to the SB54 compromise. It passed its senate committee on a 5 to 1 vote.