Republican candidates for governor say they want to change Utah’s election law

During a virtual debate Thursday, Utah’s Republican candidates for governor agreed on at least one thing: the 2014 Utah election law that created a dual path for candidates to qualify for the primary ballot is a mess.

SB54 allows politicians to either collect signatures, go through the party convention process or do both. It has sparked years of legal battles and Republican Party infighting. And it left in its wake a system the candidates described as overly complex and arduous.

“Has anyone ever tried to explain our election process to just an innocent bystander?” asked former Gov. Jon Huntsman during the debate, hosted by the Washington County Republican Women. “It’s practically impossible. We’ve got to do something about it.”

Each of the candidates pledged in turn Thursday that he would fight to return power to the old system, which relied only on the Republican Party’s preferred caucus-convention process to determine party nominees — even the candidates, like Huntsman, who would not have made it to a primary without the signature-gathering process.

And while the future of the state’s election system primarily rests within the Utah Legislature, several said they think the governor has the ability to push the issue forward by convening the interested parties for a dialogue about how to fix the problems that have arisen from SB54 over the last six years.

“We have to get everyone in a room together to figure out what that next iteration looks like,” argued Lt. Gov Spencer Cox, who oversees the state’s elections in his current role. “There is no perfect electoral system. But there are some that are better than others and I think what we’ve all experienced about this over the past few years is that it’s incredibly divisive and that’s the worst part.”

Fights over the law, he said, have torn the party apart at a time when there are “unprecedented” opportunities for Republicans in a state with a supermajority in the Legislature and in the executive branch.

“We’re spending too much time fighting over how we get to these offices and that’s unsustainable and something we can work on together,” said Cox, who came in first at last month’s state Republican Convention but had also gathered the requisite 28,000 signatures to appear on the ballot.

Former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright, who did not emerge from the convention process but had enough signatures to secure his spot in the race, agreed that a dialogue with the involved parties is the best way to “repeal and replace” SB54, as he promised to do.

But he argued he was the candidate best equipped to carry that torch forward.

“I’m a former state party chairman, my running mate [former Utah Rep. Rob Bishop] is a former state party chairman. We understand that system and I believe that we are the best suited to bring the shareholders together — since we all agree that’s the best path forward — and figure out a better, more fair, clean election system that honors the freedom of association,” he said.

In his remarks, former House Speaker Greg Hughes highlighted his commitment to the convention system by noting that he was the only one of the candidates left in the race who did not gather any signatures.

He came in second at the state convention after Cox last month.

“Words have to match actions,” he argued. “SB54 did not have to apply in this race for governor at all. If we hate it, we didn’t have to have it. All it took was for every candidate to decide to let that convention be the vetting cycle, be the nominating cycle and we could have done it.”

Wright fired back, noting that Hughes, a former lawmaker, was the only candidate in the race who had voted in favor of SB54.

“So I mean, I appreciate what he’s saying and he’s right — he was the only one who didn’t [collect signatures] and I appreciate that about him,” Wright said. “But he did vote for the bill and that’s how we got stuck with it.”

Hughes said his vote for the bill was to prevent an initiative from making its way to the ballot that would have enacted the signature gathering process and potentially dismantled the convention process altogether.

“We were living another day,” he said. “I was convinced that the courts would prevail on the side of political parties to be able to choose their own process for nominating candidates.”

Federal courts rejected Republican Party lawsuits to overturn the law, which were unsuccessfully appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

While SB54 has increasingly been embraced by candidates, it remains divisive among party activists who had considerable nominating power under the traditional system and say it gave candidates with less money a better chance of making it to the ballot.

Critics, on the other hand, argue that the old system gave too much power to delegates, who tend to be much more conservative than most voters. The dual ballot gives all party members more of a voice and helps elect more mainstream candidates, they say.

Among the examples of delegates not being in tune with overall GOP voters were that both Sen. Mitt Romney and Gov. Gary Herbert finished second at GOP conventions but went on to win landslides in their primary and general elections. Rep. John Curtis owes his election to SB54, as he was eliminated at the convention only to qualify for the primary with signatures on his way to winning the seat.

Whatever changes the next governor proposes to the state’s election system, Huntsman said they won’t be easy to implement, since people are “really, really dug in” on their perspectives.

“This is going to require a neurosurgeon in order to figure this one out,” he said.

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.