Utahns oppose erasing the option of collecting signatures to qualify for ballot

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney meets with homeowner Carson King while collecting signatures in Orem in his run for the U.S. Senate, Feb. 17, 2018.

By nearly a 2-1 margin, Utahns oppose returning to the old way of selecting party nominees through just the caucus-convention system. They want to continue a newer option for candidates to qualify for the ballot by collecting signatures.

Utah voters oppose eliminating the signature-collecting option by a 56-31 percent margin, with 14 percent undecided, according to a new poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

That comes as the Utah Republican Party is appealing a so-far unsuccessful lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to strike down that dual-path system, arguing the state unconstitutionally is interfering with how the party rules itself.

At the same time, state Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, says he plans to run legislation this year to repeal the law that created that dual system in 2014, called SB54 — a law he then co-sponsored. Also, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, recently attacked SB54 as unconstitutional, and urged the governor to stop fighting the GOP lawsuit against it.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

SB54 has split the Republican Party, which the poll again shows.

Republicans oppose dropping the signature-collecting option by a close 46-41 percent plurality (while Democrats and unaffiliated voters oppose that by much wider 3-1 margins).

The Utah GOP’s right wing hates SB54 and has pushed the lawsuit. Convention delegates tend to be far more conservative than most party members, so they wield more power in the caucus-convention system. They dislike diminishing that.

Moderates say the old system tended to nominate right-wing extremists who are not preferred by Republican voters at large.

For example, a convention delegates in 2017 rejected John Curtis in a special election for Congress, instead supporting ultraconservative Chris Herrod. But Curtis also qualified for a primary by collecting signatures as allowed by SB54, and beat Herrod easily in it and then won the general election by a landslide. He easily won re-election last year.

Supporters of the current system also point to how popular Sen. Mitt Romney and Gov. Gary Herbert finished second in recent conventions to right-wing candidates — but also went on to overwhelmingly win primary and general elections.

At the heart of the party split “is this question of how do we create elections that are representative of the broad population, not simply of hand-picked delegates,” said former Gov. Mike Leavitt, co-chairman of Count My Vote, a group that unsuccessfully tried to put an initiative on the ballot last year seeking to better cement and refine SB54.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Former Gov. Mike Leavitt attends a viewing for Olene Walker, Utah's 15th Governor, at the Utah State Capitol, Dec. 3, 2015. Leavitt is one of the leaders of a group that changed state law to allow candidates to gather signatures to get on the primary ballot.

“The party has alienated not only the majority of its ideological base, but also its economic base” by fighting SB54, Leavitt said, noting the party has been near bankruptcy in recent years because big-business donors tend to be moderate and don’t want their money going to fight SB54.

Leavitt and Rich McKeown, executive co-chairman of Count My Vote, told The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board recently that they plan to defend the law in the Legislature this year — but will not seek opening up the law to fix some shortcomings they say exist, such as requiring perhaps too many signatures to qualify for the ballot.

When asked if they may again push their initiative to defend the law, Leavitt said only, “We’re a persistent bunch.” When asked what that means, he said, “That just means we’re persistent.”

McKeown added that the latest Tribune poll is part of a continuing string of polls that show SB54 has public support. “Over the course of time, it’s clear to us that the public supports the dual path Count My Vote solution that occurred in SB54.”

(Lennie Mahler | Tribune file photo) Rich McKeown, executive chair of Count My Vote, speaks to the media in a press conference announcing a deal between his group and lawmakers at the Capitol, March 2, 2014.

Meanwhile, vowing to continue the fight against SB54 is Phill Wright, a former vice chairman of the Utah Republican party who is the executive director of Keep My Voice, a group founded by conservative millionaire Dave Bateman who is now providing most of the funding for the GOP’s lawsuit.

“We have fought for a repeal for years. But now we are waiting to hear from the U.S. Supreme Court,” Wright said, adding that that decision is needed more than just the legislative repeal of SB54 proposed by McCay.

“A repeal would help in the short term. But it doesn’t stop a special-interest group like Count My Vote from running another initiative. That’s why I believe we need to have the U.S. Supreme Court rule on this,” he said.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Phill Wright, executive director of Keep My Voice and former vice chairman of the Utah Republican Party.

He notes that many state parties and even churches filed friend-of-the-court briefs for the GOP lawsuit. “They understand the precedent set by SB54 has a negative impact on private political organizations, churches and other private businesses because it allows the government to get away with dictating how they run their organizations.”

Gov. Gary Herbert said in his monthly news conference in January that “the public seems to have embraced” SB54. He adds he would prefer to wait for the Supreme Court’s decision on the lawsuit before revisiting the law legislatively.

He added he sees little support for a legislative repeal of the law. “I think that is more political opportunism for some out there.”

The new poll surveyed 604 registered voters between Jan. 15-24, and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.