Senate committee OKs bill allowing Utah political parties to nix signature gathering for candidates

Bill would undo major parts of the SB54 compromise.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, is sponsoring SB205 that would allow Utah political parties to eliminate the signature-gathering path for candidates. The bill would undo much of the 2014 SB54 compromise.

The annual attempt by Utah lawmakers to bypass the signature-gathering path for candidates to get on the primary ballot is headed to the Senate floor.

A Senate committee gave the thumbs up to SB205 on Monday, to give political parties several options for determining how candidates qualify for the primary ballot.

“We have about $2.5 million being spent on the signature-gathering process over the last six years,” says bill sponsor Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton. He added that “99.3% of elections during that time were won by candidates that qualified for the ballot through the convention process.”

McCay’s bill creates four categories of political parties, with various paths for candidates to win the nomination, including one that would allow the party to send the top two vote-getters at convention to the primary unless one secured two-thirds support from delegates and clinched the nomination.

That would effectively undo the 2014 SB54 compromise, which established the signature-gathering route for candidates to reach a primary election, thus avoiding the possibility of elimination at the party convention. That compromise was a last-minute agreement between lawmakers and the “Count My Vote” group, which was planning a ballot initiative to completely eliminate the party convention’s role in sending candidates to the primary ballot. Polling at the time indicated that had the initiative qualified for the ballot, it would have passed.

But, since that agreement was put in place, it has been under fire from the more right-wing elements of the Utah Republican Party who sued multiple times to invalidate the law, losing most of those lawsuits, including at the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The SB54 compromise has been a tremendous success,” said Count My Vote spokesperson Taylor Morgan. “We have seen more candidates and more competition for nominations up and down the ballot in both major parties.”

In 2018, the Utah House passed a repeal of the compromise on the final night of the session, but the Utah Senate refused to take up the bill as there wasn’t enough support to pass it. Additionally, former Gov. Gary Herbert steadfastly maintained his support for the signature-gathering route and threatened to veto any attempt to override the compromise.

That may change this year. If there is enough support in the full Senate, as some lawmakers have suggested, the House could follow suit.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo and the original sponsor of SB54, said he doesn’t see the bill as going back on the commitment not to repeal that legislation and supports McCay’s bill. He said he believes it has “a reasonable chance” of passing the full Senate.

Gov. Spencer Cox’s office declined to comment as discussions on the bill are ongoing.

Morgan told The Tribune that if McCay’s bill is passed and signed by Cox, his group will immediately launch a referendum effort to overturn the decision at the ballot box or push for a new ballot initiative which could put back the signature path or eliminate party conventions as a nominating option completely.

Had the option of gathering signatures not been available for candidates, Rep. John Curtis would not be in Congress and three high-profile 2020 primary elections would have looked significantly different. Instead of a four-way GOP primary for governor, the two primary candidates would have been Cox and Greg Hughes as Jon Huntsman and Thomas Wright were eliminated at convention. Cox narrowly edged out Huntsman in the primary election with just over 36% of the vote, going on to win in November.

Similarly, Burgess Owens and Kim Coleman would have faced off in last year’s 4th Congressional District primary. Jay McFarland and Trent Christensen, who gathered signatures to get on the ballot, would have been sitting on the sidelines. Owens won the primary with 43.5% of the vote and went on to narrowly defeat Democratic incumbent Ben McAdams in November.

Additionally, the four candidate GOP primary to replace outgoing Rep. Rob Bishop in the 1st Congressional District would have been pruned back to just Kerry Gibson and Blake Moore. Both Bob Stevenson and Katie Witt would have been out of luck as they were kicked to the curb during the convention vote.

Eliminating the signature-gathering route could also have a major impact on the 2022 election cycle, too. Sen. Mike Lee may face some intraparty challengers for the nomination next year. If the Utah Republican Party were to nix the signature option, Lee would likely clear the two-thirds hurdle in the convention and completely avoid a primary election.

Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said he supports the change.

“This bill gives parties autonomy and lets them choose. That loss of autonomy has been massive. You should allow parties to make a decision on what route makes the most sense for them,” he said.

The United Utah Party, which bills itself as a home for disenchanted Republicans and Democrats, denounced the legislation as contrary to the wishes of Utah voters who, it said, “overwhelmingly favor the current, more inclusive system.”

”It is disappointing, but not surprising, that Republican legislators have once again chosen to put their own partisan interests ahead of those of the people they were elected to represent,” the party said in a news release.

A 2019 poll commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune found that Utah voters opposed eliminating the signature-collecting path to the primary ballot by a 56-31 percent margin. Large majorities of Independents and Democrats endorsed the current system, as did a plurality (44%) of Republicans.

Several senators on the committee urged McCay to work with representatives of CMV before moving forward with the bill.

Correction: 1:15 pm, Feb. 22: A previous version of this story misstated the $2.5 million that had been spent on signature gathering.