In recent memory, one of the most quixotic political issues to hit the Beehive State revolves around changing Utah’s flag. The seemingly benign decision by lawmakers to adopt a new state symbol has opponents seeking to overturn the decision at the ballot box.
After a multi-year process, the 2023 Legislature approved SB31, which updated the blue banner with a state seal to a modern concept featuring a beehive inside a hexagon and a tri-color background with an abstract mountain design. Under the legislation, Utah now has two state flags instead of one, with the new and old banners designated as official symbols.
Opponents have been trying to undo the change since the moment it was signed into law by Gov. Spencer Cox. A referendum effort aimed at vetoing the Legislature’s approval failed to gather enough support to put the issue on the ballot. Undeterred by that failure, foes of the new flag launched an initiative, hoping voters will repeal the new flag next year, restoring the blue banner.
Initiative supporters say there’s a large pool of public anger over the flag change, but early indications suggest they’re having trouble tapping into that outrage.
As of Monday, organizers had submitted just over 20,000 signatures to put the flag change on the ballot, which is about 15% of the 134,298 signatures they must collect statewide by Feb. 15. That total represents 8% of the current number of active voters in the state.
Since organizers began collecting signatures in early July, they have turned in an average of 2,253 signatures per week. To reach their goal, they’ll need to more than double that output over the remaining 24 weeks.
That’s the easy part. Organizers must also meet the 8% threshold in 26 of Utah’s 29 state senate districts. As of Monday, they have reached more than 20% of the signature goal in just nine districts. They are at 10% or less of the goal in ten districts.
Despite those seemingly long odds, organizers are confident they’ll reach the finish line. Former Utah state Rep. Fred Cox, who is helping to spearhead the effort, says their signature-gathering efforts are accelerating, noting they turned in more than 2,200 signatures to kick off the week.
“We have done well at big events. We are really starting in some areas to get to the grassroots level. Things are growing,” Cox said.
Organizers say the signature totals on the state elections website likely don’t reflect their efforts. State officials have 21 days after a packet is submitted to verify the signatures and post the information online.
“There are approximately 157 days left, which is approximately 25 signatures per district per day, which is easily achievable,” Tracie Halvorsen, a leader of the initiative effort, said in a statement. “We will achieve our goal by the deadline.”
Cox points out they’ve printed a total of 3,500 packets, each of which has space for 50 names. If all those are turned in at capacity, they’ll reach the statewide goal with plenty to spare.
The plan is to rely on volunteers instead of paid signature gatherers to qualify for the ballot. Recent history suggests that’s easier said than done. Flag opponents employed the same volunteer-only strategy earlier this year for the unsuccessful referendum effort. Two years ago, backers of a proposed initiative to junk mail-in voting in favor of same-day paper balloting only managed to collect approximately 30,000 signatures using volunteers. In 2019, an all-volunteer effort successfully placed a referendum on the ballot to undo a tax reform package approved by lawmakers, but the Legislature preemptively repealed the law before it went up for a vote.
Earlier this month, the Utah Republican Party’s State Central Committee passed a non-binding resolution supporting the ballot initiative that called on lawmakers to repeal the adoption of the new flag. When it came up for a vote, so few people remained in the meeting that supporters were forced to scour the building to round up enough people to make sure they had a quorum.
Heading into the fall and winter months could impact the volunteers’ effectiveness. Large public events and gatherings like outdoor festivals are some of the most effective ways to reel in a large number of signatures quickly. With summer coming to an end, those opportunities will become more scarce. Undeterred, organizers say they plan to take full advantage of whatever events remain.
It’s tough to place any initiative on Utahns’ ballot, as it’s only happened 26 times since 1952. Only seven of those were approved by voters.
“Creating public policy by collecting signatures is incredibly difficult,” said Taylor Morgan.
Morgan speaks from experience, having been part of the unsuccessful 2018 “Count My Vote” ballot initiative to establish direct primaries for nominating candidates. His group failed to qualify for the ballot because they only met signature thresholds in 23 state senate districts instead of the required 26.
“Any issue must have very broad and deep public support to clear that hurdle,” Morgan added.