Lawmakers approved a new Utah state flag, but now opponents want voters to repeal the banner

Referendum backers will need to gather more than 134,000 signatures by April 12 in order ask Utah voters to rebuke the state flag.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Opponents of of SB31, the bill to change Utah's state flag express their opinion in the House gallery at the Capitol, Mar. 2, 2023. SB31 adopts the redesigned flag as the official flag of Utah and gives three iterations of the current flag historical designation.

While lawmakers approved redesigning Utah’s state flag on the second to last day of the 2023 Utah legislative session, opponents are not yet ready to give up the fight and are mobilizing to put the issue to Utah voters, hoping they’ll repeal the new banner.

The successful passage of SB31 was the culmination of a multi-year effort to adopt a new flag for Utah. The updated banner, which emerged from over 5,700 submissions last year, will be the state’s official flag. Instead of scrapping the current flag, the legislation designates three versions as “historic” flags. There are no restrictions on which version of the flag can be displayed.

That is not enough for Chad Saunders, the lead sponsor of the “2023 Utah Flag Referendum” group that filed paperwork on Monday to potentially put the issue on the ballot.

“I feel that sometimes legislators stop listening to the citizens that voted them into office. I feel that happened with SB31. They made a mistake. We’re here to remind them of that,” Saunders said in a text message on Wednesday.

A referendum became possible after the bill passed with less than two-thirds support in the House and Senate.

Placing a referendum on the ballot to overturn a law passed by the legislature is no easy task. They’ll need to collect 134,298 signatures by April 12. That number represents eight percent of the active voters in the state based on the 2022 election.

That’s not the only hurdle they face. Those signatures must include eight percent of the active voters in 15 of Utah’s 29 Senate districts. For comparison, a statewide ballot initiative must reach the eight percent requirement in 26 of the state’s Senate districts.

It’s possible that they could reach that threshold without leaving the Wasatch Front. More than 20 of those 29 Senate districts touch parts of Salt Lake, Weber, Davis and Utah counties.

The new flag law will be “on hold” until the next election if they meet all those conditions and the signatures are verified. It will be up to Gov. Spencer Cox when that election occurs, either in 2023 or 2024.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton and his family celebrate passage of SB31, the bill to change Utah’s state flag on the House floor at the Capitol, Mar. 2, 2023. SB31 adopts the redesigned flag as the official flag of Utah and gives three iterations of the current flag “historical” designation.

Saunders isn’t deterred by the referendum’s high signature bar and says the organization will rely on grassroots support to circulate petitions, not paid signature gatherers.

“Our plan is to utilize the efforts of those who agree with the referendum. I’ve been impressed with the outreach so far. People from all over the state are asking how they can help,” Saunders said.

As evidence of that groundswell of support, Saunders points to a private Facebook group for the effort that has attracted more than 2,000 members since its creation less than a week ago.

(Utah Senate) A rendering of the proposed new Utah state flag under Senate Bill 31.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who successfully shepherded the flag change bill through the just-completed session, was not chastened by the potential of overturning his work at the ballot box.

“Citizen referendums are an important protected right in Utah. This will be a great opportunity for Utahns to learn more about the legislature’s effort to preserve Utah’s historic flag and add a second state flag that also celebrates Utah’s proud heritage,” McCay said via text message on Wednesday.

Utah voters have overturned decisions by the Legislature four times since 1954.

In 2007, a successful referendum effort overturned a controversial school voucher bill. In 1974, voters repealed the “Utah Land Use Act,” which implemented standards for future land development. In 1954, voters vetoed a decision by lawmakers to close Carbon College, now known as the College of Eastern Utah, and reversed a move to discontinue Dixie, Snow and Weber Colleges as public institutions.

In December 2019, lawmakers approved a sweeping tax overhaul package that included increased sales taxes on various products and services, including groceries. Shortly after lawmakers passed SB2001, a coalition of opponents launched an effort to overturn the bill, securing enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. In response, legislators repealed the bill, rendering the referendum moot.