Opponents of adopting a new Utah state flag are not ready to give up the fight. Last month, an effort to possibly veto the Legislature’s approval of the new flag failed. Now, organizers have filed an initiative to put undoing the flag change on the 2024 ballot.
In March, lawmakers gave final approval to SB31, which swaps out the current state flag — the state seal on a blue background — for an updated official banner featuring a beehive over a five-pointed star inside a hexagon over a tri-color background with stylized mountains. Instead of relegating the old design to the history books, three separate versions are designated as “historical” flags with no restrictions on when or where they can be flown.
When he signed the bill into law, Gov. Spencer Cox issued an executive order requiring displaying of both flag versions at the Utah State Capitol.
Having failed to convince lawmakers to oppose the flag change, opponents of the new flag launched a referendum effort to overturn the bill at the ballot box. That effort failed too, with organizers turning in just over one-third of the required 134,298 required signatures. Backers complained about the tight time frame — just over five weeks — to gather signatures.
Plans are now underway for a statewide ballot initiative to put a repeal of the flag change on the 2024 ballot. Organizers filed paperwork with the lieutenant governor’s office on Tuesday.
Instead of 40 days, organizers will have until February 15, 2024, to submit the required 134,298 signatures to qualify for the ballot. That total represents 8% of the current number of active voters in Utah. Organizers must also meet the 8% threshold in 26 of Utah’s 29 state senatorial districts. For comparison, last month’s unsuccessful referendum effort only had to hit the 8% requirement in 15 districts, but failed to meet that threshold in any district.
Former state Rep. Fred Cox, a leader of the forthcoming ballot effort, estimates there is overwhelming opposition to the new flag, perhaps as many as one million people, more than half of all registered voters in Utah.
“This is an issue that involves a lot of people. We just need to get the (signature) packets in front of them,” Cox says.
The initiative, titled “Restoring the State Flag,” keeps the current flag as the official state symbol, rolling back the changes approved by lawmakers earlier this year.
“A lot of people really feel like some legislators don’t listen to us,” Cox said. Not coincidentally, the political action committee formed to support the initiative has been dubbed the “Are You Listening Yet PAC.”
Under the proposed law, if lawmakers want to make any changes to the state flag or even spend money to modify the flag, the issue must be put on the ballot. Legally, any public vote would be toothless. The results could only be used to gauge voter sentiment on the issue since ballot questions cannot be binding or give voters veto power over lawmakers.
Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who ushered the flag change bill through the 2023 session, said he did not understand the contention surrounding the new flag and the quixotic effort to undo the change.
“During the last legislative session, a handful of angry people made bigoted comments and concocted false conspiracy theories. The referendum already cost taxpayer money and now they want to spend more taxpayer money with an initiative to save the historic flag that didn’t go away,” McCay said. “Perhaps the initiative is more about creating contention than saving a flag.”
Those who want to undo the flag change point to the successful passage of a pro-traditional flag resolution at this year’s Utah Republican state convention. That measure was approved by a majority of the nearly 2,500 Republican delegates in attendance, almost 2% of the more than 134,000 voters Cox’s group must convince to sign their petition by next February.
It is extremely difficult to qualify a citizen initiative for the ballot. It has only happened 26 times in Utah since 1952. Just seven of those have passed.
The first, in 1960, was to establish a merit system for hiring deputy sheriffs. In 1976, an initiative to allow local water districts to opt out of mandatory fluoridation was narrowly approved. In 2000, voters passed ballot measures making English the official language of the state and a change to asset forfeiture by law enforcement in drug-related arrests and other crimes.
In 2018, voters approved three ballot measures, one legalizing medical cannabis, another expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and establishing an independent redistricting commission. Despite the endorsement from voters, lawmakers significantly altered all three initiatives.
Cox says they plan to use volunteers instead of paid signature gatherers. Two years ago, the “Secure the Vote” initiative effort to scrap Utah’s mail-in voting system in favor of paper ballots used volunteers to circulate petitions. Backers collected fewer than 30,000 signatures, far below what they needed to reach the ballot.
The geographical signature requirement sets a very high bar for ballot qualification. In 2018, a proposed initiative to establish direct primaries for nominating candidates, known as Count My Vote, failed to reach the ballot despite organizers turning in nearly 20,000 more signatures than required because they only met signature thresholds in 23 of the 26 required state Senate districts.
“It is tough to gather sufficient signatures and meet those geographic requirements,” Taylor Morgan, who led the Count My Vote effort, recalls. “It takes time, money, strategy and expertise.”
Even if Cox’s group manages to qualify for next year’s ballot, Utah will likely have a new official state flag for nearly a year. Barring any changes by the Legislature, the flag change takes effect on March 9. If voters approve the ballot initiative, the earliest it could take effect is the first day of 2025.
The initiative effort may not be the final front in the continuing fight over changing the state flag. Organizers say several lawmakers are preparing to file legislation ahead of the 2024 session to change or undo the move to a new state banner.
Update, May 2, 2:45 p.m. • This story was updated after the ballot initiative paperwork was filed on Tuesday.