Utah Republicans who oppose a law that allows candidates to reach the ballot by collecting signatures are out of step with voters, former Gov. Mike Leavitt told House GOP members in a private meeting on Wednesday.
The former three-term Republican governor said during a closed-caucus meeting that a campaign to essentially solidify a controversial 2014 elections law through a voter initiative would begin efforts to reach the 2018 ballot immediately.
Leavitt said the resistance by GOP insiders, including some in the Legislature, to the way candidates can reach the ballot has divided the party, and that voters should decide how they want to select their candidates.
“It’s time to unite. It’s time to let the people speak,” Leavitt said he told the House GOP caucus. “It’s the only way we’ll have a chance to in fact unite and move forward.”
SB54, the law that set up the current nominating process, allows people interested in running for office to collect signatures from voters as a way of reaching the primary ballot. Previously, they needed to be picked by party delegates at a nominating convention. SB54 allows candidates to attempt either path, or both.
About 750 Republican delegates this summer chose former Rep. Chris Herrod, a hard-right conservative, as their preferred candidate to replace Jason Chaffetz in the U.S. House, while Tanner Ainge and former Provo Mayor John Curtis collected over 7,000 signatures each to reach the primary. Curtis, attacked during the campaign as too moderate, convincingly won the contested, three-way primary. He then went on to clinch the election and was sworn in Monday.
Party insiders have actively challenged the so-called dual-track system. The party initially lost in state court and is awaiting a decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“If the party continues to [resist candidates who gather signatures to reach the ballot], they will discredit themselves as being more about the interest of the party than they are the will of the people,” Leavitt said.
The issue has divided the insiders on the party’s state central committee, the controlling body for the GOP, which has racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Many on the committee want the party to continue its legal fight against SB54.
Rob Anderson, the party’s chairman, initially led an effort to drop the court battle, saying it was dividing the party and preventing his ability to attract donors who don’t want their money to fund what they view as an unpopular lawsuit.
Anderson also said the party’s ongoing legal fight is fueling voters’ interest in Count My Vote, the ballot-drive group that now wants voters to approve the Legislature’s SB54 with some tweaks. The campaign originally wanted to allow candidates to reach the ballot only by signature-gathering before pulling back in recent weeks to keep the convention process.
Leavitt is among leaders of Count My Vote, along with Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller and former first lady Norma Matheson.
House Republicans are split about on the dual-track system, with some agreeing with Leavitt and others vehemently opposed. House conservatives have made several attempts, so far unsuccessful, to scrap SB54 and return to the old caucus-convention system.
“He’s right to say that it’s been divisive, and he’s right to say that it’s been going on for eight years,” said Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, who supports SB54. “I think most everyone would agree that it would be good to get back to some kind of consensus. Hopefully we can.”
Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, said Count My Vote favors wealthy candidates.
“The Count My Vote initiative is focused on consolidating control of ballot access to those wealthy enough to run the largest campaigns,” Fawson said. “They have no interest in improving or maintaining the caucus and convention system or the representation of voters.”
“This is not an improvement to the process. It’s a systematic dismantling of a process that has made us a top-performing state in the nation,” Fawson said. “The division that exists today can be credited to Count My Vote.”
Leavitt said Gov. Gary Herbert also wanted the issue to go to the ballot. Herbert’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Leavitt also said he thought the Senate would avoid passing any legislation that sought to significantly change SB54 before voters weigh in on Count My Vote.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, declined to comment on whether Senate Republicans discussed the matter. But he said it would be a surprise if the chamber took up the matter.
“I can’t say how the body would vote,” Thatcher said. “I would be very surprised if there was any change seriously considered in the Senate.”