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Senate bill that undoes part of a signature-gathering compromise could soon pass

(Utah State Capitol. Credit: Paul Nelson, file.)

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill before the legislature that would counteract some of a years-old compromise that gives candidates a choice between signature-gathering or the caucus-convention system to put themselves on a ballot could soon pass the Utah Senate.

Lawmakers struck down SB205 Thursday evening, then revived the legislation less than an hour later — advancing it to its next reading.

Now, it seems Senate lawmakers are likely to pass the bill, which would undo parts of the so-called “Count My Vote” compromise affecting how Utah candidates get on the ballot.

A level playing field? 

Republican leaders say it would virtually level the playing field between incumbents and lesser-known candidates by eliminating signature gathering in favor of conventions. But those who backed the Count My Vote initiative, which sought to overhaul the primary process in Utah, and others say the current system is more inclusive.

The bill’s sponsor argued signature gathering favors those with deep pockets on the campaign trail.

“We have seen a greater number of incumbent protection,” said Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, on the Senate floor Thursday. “We forced candidates of lesser means, not incumbents, into the convention system and those with significant financial resources were able to avoid the convention system.”

McCay co-sponsored SB54, the 2014 bill that eventually led to the Count My Vote compromise, through which candidates can choose either signature gathering or the caucus-convention system to get their names on the ballot

How it works now

Under current statute, Utah law allows political parties to nominate candidates through one of several ways. If a party uses the traditional caucus and convention method — selecting candidates through a voting system — they must also allow candidates the opportunity to get their name on the ballot through signature-gathering.

However, there’s currently no option for a convention-only process. McCay wants to change that, citing disparities between well-known incumbents who coast through convention votes compared to first-time candidates who must increase campaign spending to get their name on the primary ballot.

The United Utah Party put out a statement earlier announcing its opposition to McCay’s SB205. 

“Despite the fact that Utah voters overwhelmingly favor the current, more inclusive system, the Republican majority in the legislature has long opposed reforms that give Utah voters choices beyond what the GOP party leadership is willing to sanction,” the party said in the statement. “It is disappointing, but not surprising, that Republican legislators have once again chosen to put their own partisan interests ahead of those of the people they were elected to represent.” 

The United Utah Party was co-founded by Jim Bennett, whose father, the late Sen. Bob Bennett, was famously ousted from his Senate position at the state GOP convention by then-newcomer Mike Lee. 

Conventions vs. signature gathering

McCay argues candidates spend much more money to gather signatures, but don’t see good results. According to him, 99.3% of the candidates on the general election ballot in the last six years qualified for the ballot through the convention system. 

His bill would create four categories of political parties. Each offers multiple paths for a candidate to win his or her party’s nomination. Under the convention-only process, convention delegates narrow a party’s pool of candidates to two nominees who will advance to the primary election — unless one candidate receives at least two-third of the vote, in which case they advance straight to the general election.

The Count My Vote compromise established signature gathering as an alternative means for candidates to reach their party primary without going through the convention. Opponents say McCay’s bill ultimately undoes that option. 

As of Friday afternoon, McCay’s bill is set to be circled back in the Utah Senate where it’s expected to pass.

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