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Utah lawmakers float a compromise on filling midterm vacancies in Congress — an ongoing source of controversy

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) People cast their votes in the early hours shortly after the polls opened for the midterm elections on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 at First Congregational Church in Salt Lake City.

State Sen. Dan Thatcher told his legislative colleagues Wednesday that they have two options for dealing with the state’s ambiguous laws around filling midterm vacancies in the U.S. House and Senate.

Either they allow candidates to qualify for the ballot by gathering signatures, the West Valley Republican said, or they can effectively do nothing by continuing to pass legislation that is vetoed by the governor.

“I don’t think that we will reach a point where we will have enough support in the Legislature to overturn signatures or override a governor’s veto,” Thatcher said. “If we pass something and it gets vetoed like this last one did, we don’t have a bill, which means the governor does essentially exactly whatever he wants.”

In March, Gov. Gary Herbert issued his first veto of the year on SB123, which created a special election process that would have relied on party delegates to select midterm replacement candidates while excluding the signature-gathering route to a primary established by SB54 in 2014.

Lawmakers for years have discussed a need to update the state’s midterm vacancy election laws, but the issue escalated in 2017 after the resignation of then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz just six months into his fifth term. Over the objections of legislative leaders, Herbert unilaterally called a special election under a truncated timeline, allowing signature-gathering candidates, and triggering tensions between the executive and legislative branches that still linger.

But on Wednesday, during a hearing of the Government Operations Interim Committee, Thatcher presented the outline of a potential compromise that would codify the signature route for House vacancies while bolstering the Legislature’s power in filling Senate vacancies.

He said the proposal stems from a meeting last week with representatives from the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s offices, and suggested it could achieve an acceptable middle ground for all sides.

“It is as inclusive as we can possibly design this so that there is as much involvement from the public as we can realistically do within that time frame,” Thatcher said.

While the bill has not yet been drafted, the critical elements were disclosed during Wednesday’s hearing.

For House vacancies, a special election would be held under the same time frame and rules of SB54 — with candidates qualifying for a primary either by collecting signatures or winning delegate support at convention — but with the governor able to shorten the time frame as circumstances require.

The special election would also be combined with a regularly occurring primary or general election, when possible, or on an irregular election date if called by the governor and approved for funding by the Legislature.

For Senate vacancies — which currently sees the state central committee of the exiting senator’s party submit three nominees to the governor for an appointment of one — the new proposal would empower the Legislature to submit three nominees to the governor, after securing a majority vote for each name in both legislative chambers.

The appointee would serve in an interim capacity until the election of a replacement senator during the next regular election cycle on even-numbered years, consistent with current law.

Paul Edwards, spokesman for Herbert, said the governor supports the effort to clarify Utah’s election laws.

"He especially appreciates the effort to rely on Utah’s existing election policies and processes within the context of any potential special election for Congress,” Edwards said.

And Justin Lee, the state elections director, confirmed that a meeting was held last week to discuss potential areas of compromise.

“We’re grateful the Legislature is continuing to look at this issue,” Lee said, “and we look forward to working with legislators to find a solution that will best serve the voters of Utah.”

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