Opponents of a controversial Utah election law signaled this week that — after sputtering at the state Capitol and in the courts — they may take their fight directly to voters this November.
A new proposed ballot initiative, the sixth filed with the state, would alter the way candidates are nominated four years after the state changed election rules to give voters more influence in picking candidates.
At stake is the way candidates are nominated in Utah, and whether candidates must reach a primary by winning over political party convention delegates or if they can get on the primary ballot by collecting signatures directly from voters.
The Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert created the current framework in 2014 with SB54, which allows candidates to reach the primary either through a convention or by collecting signatures.
A group calling itself Keep My Voice that includes former state Rep. Chris Herrod and other political insiders filed paperwork with the state, the first step to get an initiative on the ballot later this year.
SB54 “caused a lot of turmoil and confusion in the party,” said Brandon Beckham, director of Keep My Voice. “There’s a lot of people that aren’t happy about it.”
The hybrid system created by SB54 has divided political insiders, notably within the Republican Party, which has challenged the existing law in state and federal courts. Some in party leadership have tried to pull back from the lawsuit, noting legal bills have put the party into debt and hurt fundraising. The case is awaiting a decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Members of Keep My Voice say SB54 violates constitutional free speech by telling political parties how to conduct elections. They also say it will lead to divisive and more expensive elections.
The proposed measure’s backers include Dave Bateman, the CEO of Lehi-based Entrata, who has proposed funding the Republican Party’s ongoing legal dispute over SB54. Bateman has said he wants to see the lawsuit continue, if unsuccessful at the 10th Circuit, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In its filing documents, Keep My Voice wrote that another ballot measure campaign called Count My Vote, which would essentially solidify SB54, plans to implement direct primaries, which in other states allow voters — rather than political parties — to choose their candidates.
Herrod’s own experience highlights what Republicans who are opposed to SB54 want to avoid. Republican delegates last year chose Herrod as their nominee to replace former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who stepped down and became a contributor at Fox News.
Herrod defeated numerous candidates, including then-Provo Mayor John Curtis, at the party’s nominating convention. Curtis, who also collected signatures, went on to win a three-way primary and general election to become Utah’s newest congressman.
“I’m kind of the poster child of the damage that can be done,” Herrod said. “Any other year I would have been the Republican congressperson right now.”
Under the pre-SB54 framework, if a candidate received more than 60 percent of the vote at a nominating convention, he or she advanced directly to the general election. Two candidates faced off in a primary election if no one reached the 60 percent threshold.
While Herrod said he prefers the courts to decide the matter, he is supporting the initiative process amid uncertainty within the Republican Party and over how and when the 10th Circuit will rule.
“The only way to get peace on it is to see if there is a constitutional issue,” Herrod said.
The petition sets up the prospect of a battle between dueling ballot measures in November: one that would uphold the existing nomination framework and one that would junk SB54 and return exclusively to the caucus-convention system.
“It’s time to unite, it’s time to let the people speak,” former Gov. Mike Leavitt, a major backer of Count My Vote, recounted telling members of the Utah House during a closed-door caucus meeting in November. “It’s the only way we’ll have a chance to in fact unite and move forward.”
To reach the ballot, the campaigns must collect signatures from about 113,000 registered voters, including 10 percent of all votes cast for president in 26 of Utah’s 29 state Senate districts.