Delegates have an outsized role in picking Utah’s elected leaders. Here’s how.

In Utah, a handful of delegates have the power to decide which candidates end up on voters’ primary ballots — and occasionally who will represent Utahns in the Legislature.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A delegate casts a ballot during the Salt Lake County GOP convention in Murray on Saturday, April 13, 2024.

The delegates who cast ballots in the county and state conventions have enormous influence on the makeup of the Utah Legislature. In many cases, a few dozen delegates may decide who represents thousands of voters in a particular district.

Just 9% of the state’s registered Republican voters turned out for the March caucus meetings where state and county-level delegates were chosen. Those delegates can play an outsized role in which GOP candidates make it to the primary or general election ballots. In some cases, they even select who will represent the entire district in the Utah Legislature.

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore needed just 116 votes at Saturday’s Salt Lake County Republican Nominating Convention to win the party nomination. He is running unopposed in November, so those 116 voters decided who will represent the 59,000 voters in Senate District 16 for the next four years.

When Katy Hall challenged incumbent Kelly Miles to represent House District 11 in 2022, just 36 delegates voted in that race at the convention. Miles won 19-17, but was three votes short of what was required to win the nomination outright. Hall went on to defeat Miles in the GOP primary election.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kelly Miles shares a laugh with a delegate, at the Davis County Republican nominating convention at Farmington High School, on Saturday, March 26, 2022.

In some solidly Republican or Democratic districts, winning the delegate vote at the party convention amounts to a de facto win in November. For instance, GOP Rep. Candice Pierucci got 68 votes (91%) from Salt Lake County delegates to fend off challenger Scott Hatfield to win the GOP nomination in HD49. Because of that, Pierucci is a favorite to win another term in November as Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 5-1 in the district.

The outsized influence of delegates is not confined to the Republican party. Democratic delegates in Salt Lake County kicked Rep. Brett Garner to the curb after just one term in office. Garner lost this year’s convention vote to Verona Mauga. Last January, Democratic delegates picked Garner to succeed Rep. Karen Kwan after delegates selected her to replace Karen Mayne in the Utah Senate.

Caucuses favor the ‘ideologically committed’

Party caucuses tend to favor small but intense minorities in both parties. Utah voters can find it difficult to spend several hours at a party caucus meeting on a Tuesday evening. Because of that, party caucuses tend to produce candidates with more extreme political views than mainstream voters.

“The caucus system is a way for more committed party activists to control the nominating process,” Geoff Allen, an assistant professor of political science at Utah Tech University, explains.

Allen says Republicans outnumber Democrats 4-1 in Utah, so it is reasonable to expect the GOP coalition to encompass many ideologically diverse elements — moderates, conservatives, reactionaries and fringe elements. Caucuses tend to attract more committed partisans rather than appeal to the broader universe of Republicans.

“Moderate voters are pretty unlikely to feel comfortable showing up at caucus events, which cater to the more ideologically committed,” Allen said. “Moderate candidates face an uphill battle in the caucuses, even if they may represent a substantial percentage, even a plurality of Republican voters.”

Since 2016, candidates have been able to collect signatures to secure a spot in the primary election.

Before that, winning over delegates was the only way to win the nomination or advance to a primary. In 2014, lawmakers compromised with Count My Vote to head off a likely successful ballot initiative that would have removed political conventions from the nomination process. That compromise, known as SB54, created the signature path for candidates, allowing them to avoid being eliminated at the convention.

Gathering signatures

The signature path has been a lifeline for several incumbents and challengers who would have otherwise been ousted by a small number of delegates.

Rep. Jeff Stenquist’s tenure at the Utah Capitol almost ended after Draper City Council Member Cal Roberts got 63 votes from GOP delegates on Saturday, which would have been enough to knock him out of the race. Instead, Stenquist and Roberts collected signatures, making the delegate vote irrelevant and ensuring both would appear on the primary ballot.

Democratic incumbent Rep. Joel Briscoe lost to challenger Grant Miller at the convention but avoided elimination from the race because of signatures. Briscoe advanced to a three-way primary where he will face Miller and Ramon Barthelemy, who also gathered signatures.

In House District 39, Republican Lisa Dean collected 1,000 signatures to secure her spot on the primary ballot. Had she not done that, the 38 votes from delegates won by Rep. Ken Ivory would have been sufficient to knock her out of the race. Instead, Ivory faces his first-ever primary election.

Republican’s 2022 House District 16 race is a textbook illustration of how a decision to gather or not to gather signatures can have a profound impact on an election. Then, longtime Republican incumbent Steve Handy decided against gathering signatures. That decision proved fatal to Handy’s political career as he lost to Trevor Lee, who needed only 53 delegate votes to win the nomination. This year, Lee received 65 votes from delegates (73%), but he is headed to a primary against Daniella Harding, who collected enough signatures to avoid being eliminated at the convention.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trevor Lee speaks with Senate President Stuart Adams, at the Davis County Republican nominating convention at Farmington High School, on Saturday, March 26, 2022.

Utah State University political scientist Damon Cann says the signature path can benefit more moderate candidates who may not be favored by delegates.

“We’ve seen for some time there are significant differences in issue preferences and priorities between party delegates, who tend to be more ideologically extreme, and a party’s primary voters,” Cann said.

While the signature path can help moderate candidates keep their campaigns alive despite a convention loss, it is also more difficult. State House candidates must collect 1,000 signatures from registered voters from the same party in their district, and the signature requirement for state Senate candidates is 2,000. The signature requirement jumps to 7,000 for congressional candidates and 28,000 for statewide offices and U.S. Senate races. Collecting those signatures requires a massive effort in a relatively short timeframe, either from volunteers or spending thousands of dollars hiring paid signature gatherers.

“The signature gathering path does allow some candidates to get through to a primary who otherwise wouldn’t make it,” Cann said. “But the difficulty of gathering signatures generally means that only serious candidates with demonstrated support within their party’s electorate are able to guarantee a spot through this path. We certainly haven’t seen a flood of moderate candidates sweeping primaries since the advent of the signature path.”

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