House votes to erase state’s new election law if voters reject Count My Vote initiative this fall

FILE - In this Aug. 15, 2015, file photo, Utah GOP delegate Ed Redd casts his vote for the offices of treasurer, secretary and vice-chair in Sandy, Utah. Utah's Republican Party is pressing on with a legal battle over a 2014 law that allows candidates to bypass the party's nominating conventions and instead collect signatures to qualify to participate in a primary. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, File)

Legislators moved Wednesday toward giving voters a clear choice this year: whether to allow candidates to qualify for the primary ballot only through the caucus-convention system, or allow both that and/or qualifying by collecting signatures.

The House voted 53-18 to pass HB338 and sent it to the Senate. The measure would erase a state election law that allows the two paths to the ballot — but only if an initiative pushed by Count My Vote fails this year, or even fails to get on the ballot.

That initiative seeks to cement the current law, but reduce how many signatures are required for candidates who choose that option.

The bill to erase the election law if the ballot question fails is being pushed by Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who was the original House sponsor of the 2014 legislation, SB54.

“I don’t know how we can argue against giving people the opportunity to have a vote on this issue,” he said.

He lamented that the state did not do that in the first place. Count My Vote originally proposed an initiative to replace the caucus-convention system with a direct primary. But the organizers pulled back when they negotiated a compromise with legislators in SB54: the current hybrid law that preserves the convention but allows signature gathering.

SB54 has since touched off a civil war among Republicans. Moderates contend the convention system — controlled by conservative delegates — tends to choose nominees who are outside the mainstream. Conservative delegates gripe that signature gathering allows candidates who are not real Republicans but have lots of money to win elections.

Because of that, the GOP has challenged SB54 in court — but lost all major decisions to date, although an appeal is pending. The fight put the party in debt as legal bills mounted and moderates quit donating for fear their money would go to fund the lawsuit.

The dual-path system, though, led to the election of U.S. Rep. John Curtis in a special election last year. GOP Convention delegates had chosen ultraconservative former state Rep. Chris Herrod, but Curtis qualified for the primary by collecting signatures, then went on to win the primary and, later, the general election.

McCay said his new bill, HB338, should end all controversy by giving “the voters the opportunity to make the decision.”

Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, said he had resisted attempts to repeal SB54 in recent years to let it play out in recent elections. “But it is an unmitigated disaster, so we need to let the people decide” about whether they agree, he said.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, opposed any effort to erase SB54. “Utahns should be alarmed by the relentless efforts by their representatives to take away their options as voters and candidates,” he said. All House Democrats voted against the bill.

HB338 would allow the signature-gathering law to continue if the Count My Vote initiative prevails in November, but it severely shortens the window for candidates to declare their intent to gather signatures. Currently that period is 2½ months long. The bill would shorten it to five days in January.

Rick McKeown, executive co-chairman of Count My Vote, said polls show that big majorities of voters want a dual path to the ballot.

“We’re on track to get our new initiative on the ballot,” he said, predicting it will win.

In separate action, the House voted 40-31 to send to the Senate HB485, designed to ensure that the Republican Party and all its candidates may appear on the ballot this year despite a rule change by the party’s State Central Committee that violates current law.

The rule change last month would disqualify party candidates who collect signatures in some races.

HB483 would force the party to follow whatever rules it selects initially for an entire election cycle, and does not permit changing midstream. It essentially ignores the recent GOP State Central Committee action.

Democrats protested and some conservatives.

“Under the First Amendment, a political party can change their rules midstream, but they have to live with the consequences,” Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said.

Some conservative Republicans also argued that HB483 infringes on the right of a party to govern itself and how it selects nominees.

Dave Bateman, the CEO of Entrata who stepped up to foot the costs for the legal challenge to ensure it moved forward, said Wednesday on K-TALK Radio that the state shouldn’t be able to decide how parties pick candidates. Forcing the GOP to recognize signature gatherers, he said, is akin to the dictatorial control in North Korea.

— Reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this report.