Utah Supreme Court deals a blow to Count My Vote: Election reform initiative won’t be on November’s ballot

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Taylor Morgan of Count My Vote spoke at the Count My Vote public hearing at the Whitmore Library in Cottonwood Heights, Friday, Oct. 27, 2017. The Count My Vote ballot initiative seeks to select party nominees through a direct primary, in addition to the traditional caucus-convention system.

The Utah Supreme Court decided Friday that the Count My Vote initiative will not appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, rejecting arguments that the state’s referendum process is unconstitutionally tilted and unfair.

Count My Vote collected more than 132,000 verified voter signatures to qualify initially for the ballot, but opponents torpedoed it by convincing a relatively small amount of people in two Senate districts to withdraw signatures during a 30-day review window.

The court issued a short order and said its written opinions and any dissents explaining the decision will follow. The court was under pressure to rule by Thursday, the deadline for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox to certify the final ballot to allow printing before early copies are sent to the military and other voters overseas.

Count My Vote’s initiative sought to solidify and tweak a 2014 state election law, called SB54, that allows candidates to qualify for a primary election by gathering signatures and/or through the traditional caucus-convention system.

The Utah Republican Party has sued to overturn that law, so far unsuccessfully. Conservatives argue that signature-gathering allows advancement of candidates who are “Republicans in name only.” Moderates say returning to the old system, in which only convention delegates chose most nominees, would give the right wing too much power and make way for candidates who are outside the political mainstream.

“We’re comforted by virtue of the fact that SB54 still exists and creates the dual path to the ballot,” said Rich McKeown, executive co-chairman of Count My Vote. “Our desire was for the voters to have a chance to improve it and adopt it with the resoluteness that only voters can supply.”

Leaders of the Keep My Voice opposition to SB54 did not return The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment.

McKeown said his group will continue to push “efforts to implement laws that will give Utah voters the maximum opportunity for participation, and we’ll pursue every opportunity that makes sense.”

That may not include, however, promoting the initiative again, at least under the current rules.

“I’ve actually come to believe that the current process will leave us with an impossibility of getting on the ballot by initiative. I don’t think that any initiative that has a well-organized or well-funded opposition can survive the assault of name removal in a select number of districts," McKeown said.

To qualify for the ballot, state law requires an initiative to collect signatures totaling 10 percent of the votes cast in the prior presidential election — now about 113,000 statewide — but it also requires meeting that 10 percent mark in 26 of the state’s 29 Senate districts.

Count My Vote failed by about a combined 100 signatures in two Senate districts after opponents waged a campaign to persuade people there to remove signatures.

Under current rules, McKeown said, it may require gathering more than 200,000 signatures to ensure success, which makes it expensive and difficult.

In oral arguments this month, Count My Vote attorney Matthew Cannon argued that the process is so unfair that “a single motivated group, or an individual, could single-handedly keep any initiative off the ballot.”

But the state’s lawyer, Solicitor General Tyler R. Green, argued that the 30-day period for name removal is a protection against fraud, allowing people to remove signatures in case of forgery or when they were led to believe they were signing something else.

Morgan Philpot, attorney for Keep My Voice, told justices that such fraud did occur — but justices said that was not proved in evidence given to them.

After the ruling Friday, the progressive-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah called for a legislative fix to the initiative process.

“A small fraction of the population should not have the ability to negate the will of tens of thousands of Utahns,” said Chase Thomas, policy and advocacy counsel for Alliance for a Better Utah.

“The glaring disparity between the signature-gathering and signature-removal processes must be addressed,” he said. “We call on our legislators to close the signature-removal loophole and provide a fair opportunity for voters to express their views at the polls.”