SB54 v. Count My Vote

Reform of Utah’s caucus-convention system is always a hot topic among Utah’s politicos, but 2014 has seen the normal controversy escalate beyond more than talk, as there are currently two proposals out there that would seriously alter  Utah’s political landscape.

Right now, Utah’s election code allows parties exclusive control over the process they use for endorsing candidates on the ballots for a general election.  Both parties in Utah have opted to nominate and endorse candidates exclusively through a caucus-convention system that is uniform, even though it isn’t mandated anywhere in the Utah code.

The Current System.

Readers of this blog are likely familiar with the system, and so I won’t spend much time describing how it operates.  Essentially, both major political parties in Utah select, from among their members, delegates who vote at the party’s annual convention on candidates for elective office.  Any registered party member can be a candidate for office provided he or she timely files a declaration of candidacy.  There is no nominating requirement that I’m aware of.  At convention, if any single candidate gets 60 percent or more of the delegate vote, that candidate is endorsed by the party and placed on the general election ballot.  If no single candidate gets 60 percent or more of the delegate vote, then the top two vote getters face off in a primary election battle.

Not too complicated, right?

But it’s generated a lot of controversy.  While the controversy is beyond the scope of this post — which is really more descriptive in nature — it’s not hard to outline the arguments on both sides.  As a self-absorbed blogger, I’ll refer you to my prior post on the topic if you’re interested:  What to do with Utah’s caucus system?  Also, check out Daniel Burton’s post on the topic here at Utah Politico Hub.

With the current system in mind, let’s take a look at the proposed alternatives.

Count My Vote.

Count My VoteCount my Vote is a citizens’ initiative that would require political parties who want their candidates to appear as endorsed by the party on the general election ballot to hold a primary election between all candidates who qualify based on a signature gathering nominating procedure.

Essentially, on November 15 prior to a general election year, the Lieutenant Governor’s office (“LG’s Office”) would be required to certify (i) the positions for elected office that would be on the ballot for the upcoming general election, and (ii) the number of registered voters for each political party in each electoral district.  Potential candidates, commencing on the same November 15, would be able to file a declaration of candidacy with the LG’s Office.

Then, the candidates would have from November 15 (or the date they filed their declaration of candidacy) until the end of April (the first Monday after the third Saturday in April, to be precise) to gather signatures from 2% of the registered party voters within the electoral district in which they are seeking election.  The LG’s Office would then review the signatures through individual counting or accepted statistic sampling methods to see which candidates meet the 2% threshold.  Two days after the deadline for signature gathering, the LG’s Office would provide the county clerks with a list of candidates for the primary election.  Candidates running unopposed for their preferred party affiliation are exempt from the signature gathering requirements, as are candidates for Lieutenant Governor (who only need to file a declaration of candidacy and have a letter confirming they are the running mate of a candidate for governor that complied with the signature gathering requirements).

As a voter initiative, Count My Vote would require the signatures of approximately 100,000 registered voters to be put on the ballot in 2014.  Latest reports (as of mid-January 2014) put the total signature gathered at approximately 40,000.

SB54 – The Legislative Alternative.

Senator Curt Bramble has proposed SB 54 to revise elections law and allow more people to participate in candidate selection.

The Count My Vote initiative appears, based on polling, to be popular with the public.  But it is not popular with most elected officeholders or  (from what I can tell) the vast majority of Utah politicos, regardless of political party.  However, it’s popularity with the general public has prompted a legislative response, in the form of SB54, a bill sponsored by Senator Curt Bramble that is intended to head Count My Vote off at the pass.

Although lengthy, and, at first glance, intimidating, SB54 is actually a very simple bill.  It adopts wholesale the language from the Count My Vote initiative — and then proceeds to add an exemption for a political party that meets the following qualifications:

  1. Permits unaffiliated voters to vote the parties primary election (i.e., so if the GOP has a primary election, it cannot limit the right to vote in that primary to members of the Republican Party unless it wants to be subject to the Count My Vote rules).
  2. Permits remote or absentee voting for delegates at caucus night, with a 2-day window for the voting to take place.
  3. Raises the threshold for avoiding a primary election to at least 65% of the delegate vote at convention (up from the current 60% used by both parties).

That’s it.  What Senator Bramble’s bill does is say to parties, make these three changes, and you can continue on largely as you were.  If you don’t make these three changes, it’s Count My Vote for you.

What Happens if SB54 Passes?  Could Count My Vote Proceed?

This is an interesting question, and one that I didn’t readily find a clear answer to.  SB54 would change the existing law, and would, if passed, take effect upon receiving the governor’s signature.  That means that the text of the Count My Vote initiative would be out of date at the time of the election.  So, would Count My Vote have to update the text of its initiative and re-gather signatures after SB54’s passage (a futile effort, which would kill the initiative)?  Or would it simply be able to proceed under the assumption that, if passed, it would restore the law as it was prior to SB54 with Count My Vote’s designated changes?

I’m uncertain, and, frankly, don’t have the time or energy to spend on research the details.  I will say that, just out of practical considerations, my guess is that Count My Vote would be allowed to proceed as there seems to be essentially no power in an initiative process that allows the legislature to circumvent any initiative with last minute legislation.

Assuming Count My Vote could proceed, it will be interesting to see the extent to which SB54 affects how citizens vote on the initiative.  I would expect we’ll see quite a massive media war over whether the reforms are enough or need to go farther.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome — Count My Vote or SB54, the certain casualty here seems to be the rights of political parties to choose their candidates in any manner they see fit.  Beyond that near certainty, it will be interesting to watch this all unfold.

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