Utah Senate kills then resurrects bill to eliminate signature-gathering path for candidates

Some worry the bill would lead to a referendum effort to do away with Utah’s convention system.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Republican Sen. Dan McCay's bill giving political parties the ability to prevent candidates from gathering signatures to get on the ballot was killed then resurrected in the Utah Senate on Feb. 25, 2021

The Utah Senate on Thursday evening killed a proposal to give political parties the option of doing away with the alternative path to the ballot for candidates who gather signatures. But, less than an hour later, they revived the bill and advanced it.

SB205, which created the option for political parties to eliminate the signature-gathering path for candidates, was initially defeated by a 15-12 vote as 10 Republicans joined with five Democrats in the Senate in voting it down.

Utah law allows political parties to choose one of several nominating paths for candidates. If the party wants to use the traditional caucus and convention method to select candidates, then they must allow those candidates to gather a set number of signatures in order to avoid the possibility of being eliminated from the race at the convention. They also have the choice of taking part in the convention, too. The other available options are signature-gathering only for primary candidates or having no primary at all. There is not an option to use nominating conventions exclusively.

The bill created another option for parties, allowing them to have a convention-only path so long as they raised the threshold for avoiding a primary election to 66% of the vote in the convention. Otherwise, they would send the top two candidates to the primary election.

“The signature path is largely a tool that is used to protect incumbents,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton. “We forced candidates of lesser means, not incumbents, into the convention system while those with significant financial resources were able to avoid the convention system.”

McCay’s statement is rooted in truth. The SB54 compromise came about after longtime Sen. Bob Bennett was unexpectedly knocked out of the race at the GOP convention in 2012, leading to the election of current Sen. Mike Lee. After Bennett’s ouster, the Count My Vote group was preparing an initiative for the 2014 ballot to eliminate the convention system completely in favor of an open primary system. Legislators crafted the SB54 compromise to head off that initiative and save the party nominating conventions from the historical trash heap.

If the signature path had not been established, several high-profile GOP primary elections from last year would have looked much different. For example, the four-way contest for the Republican nomination for governor would have been a two-person affair between Spencer Cox and Greg Hughes as former Gov. Jon Huntsman lost in the GOP convention. Opponents of the signature path say Cox was able to win that primary with just over 36% of the vote, and was given the party’s nomination without a majority of support from GOP voters.

“I hate this bill,” said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City. “I’m the only senator in this body to vote against the original SB54.”

Thatcher warned his colleagues that passing this bill would prompt a referendum effort that would almost certainly lead to the elimination of the convention system.

“This puts us in a no-win situation. We either vote for this bill and get a referendum that would end the caucus system, or vote against this bill and get crucified at the next convention. We either have to vote to make our caucus attendees happy for the last caucus we may ever hold, or do the hard thing and vote against it and hopefully preserve the caucus,” he added.

About 30 minutes after the apparent death of the bill, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, who was a “nay” vote, made a motion to reconsider the vote as he felt some of his colleagues were confused and thought a vote to pass the bill was also an affirmative vote to do away with the caucus system in the state. After that explanation, the bill was advanced on an 18-11 tally.

The measure faces one more vote in the Senate. If it passes there, it’s thought there’s enough support to pass the bill through the House. On the final night of the 2019 session, the House approved a full repeal of the SB54 compromise, but the Senate refused to consider the measure and it died.