The Folly of Senate Bill 54

Utah state capitol

Utah Senate Bill 54 has led quite a life over its short life.

Initially introduced as Senator Curt Bramble‘s alternative to Count My Vote (hereafter referred to as CMV), it was initially denounced by CMV supporters and actively campaigned against. It even led to an open statement of support for CMV and denouncement of SB54 by none other than Mitt Romney.

Last Thursday CMV announced that they had over 100,000 of the 102,000 required signatures to put it on the ballot, and within 24 hours rumors were flying that some of the top CMV backers were meeting privately with Senator Bramble and other Republican leaders in the state legislature to come to a compromise. Finally, over the weekend the compromise was revealed: the all new SB54.

The new SB54 creates an alternate path for a candidate to traverse if they want to avoid Utah‘s traditional caucus system. Instead, candidates could go directly to a primary race and bypass running in a caucus/convention system with anywhere from 1,000 to 28,000 votes. Additionally it opens up caucus meetings to unaffiliated voters.

Unfortunately the SB54 compromise seems to have been made out of fear by both sides. I’ve talked with legislators who said that they liked it because it kept the ball in the Utah Legislature‘s court. Likewise, CMV announcing they had over 100,000 signatures certainly put some fear into legislators who feared that they had to do something to stop the CMV momentum, even if it meant a compromise bill that leaned far more to CMV than to what Legislators and the political parties wanted.

Why would CMV have gone to the table in the first place though?

One of the first rules of negotiation is to negotiate from a position of strength. It’s clear that CMV seeded this negotiation period with misdirection. It would be child’s play to get 2,000 signatures before the April 15 deadline, so they wanted that top line number out in the press and rattling around the heads of Legislators.

At the same time, they can’t just get those signatures in Salt Lake County and be finished. To ensure that a citizen’s initiative is representative of the will of the people throughout the state, a variable number of signatures (ranging from 1956 to 4524) must be collected from 26 of 29 Senate districts (this amount is determined by the vote for President in each SD in the prior election – ironically CMV supporter Mr. Romney made things harder for the very initiative he supports).

From calls to county clerks, the only county where CMV is doing well is Salt Lake County, and signatures haven’t been validated yet. During the validation process, signatures and information is matched to registered voters and verified by the Lieutenant Governor’s office. As a result, many of these signatures would be invalidated as a result of the validation process.

Using a typical 10% reduction in collected signatures due to information that couldn’t be verified and/or outright bogus signatures, that would still put CMV far away from their stated goal and would cast doubt on if they would even be able to hit the threshold to get on the ballot. Therefore, the CMV leadership likely thought that they weren’t going to get enough signatures on their petitions to make it to the ballot in November. Thus, they talked to Senator Bramble, shared the scary top line number, and crossed their fingers that Legislators would take the bait. Fortunately for them, Legislators did and a compromise was introduced.

Meanwhile, people on both sides of the debate are angry at the compromise – CMV workers because they were betrayed by the leaders of their movement and caucus supporters because this is a significant blow to the caucuses that will lead to increased costs for elections (note that all the main supporters of CMV are either quite wealthy or stand to benefit from more money in the elections process); CMV opponents because this is essentially a capitulation that will lead to the caucus becoming an antiquated, worthless endeavor.

In the interest of full disclosure, I oppose CMV because it will increase election costs and because it upsets the republican form of government in our state. Notice that I used the lowercase republican. While Utah is very Republican as well, our nation and our state were formed based on the ideals of a republic. Too often we say that we are a democracy, but the government as it was originally conceived was one where neighbors would be able to talk with people who represented their opinions, then those representatives would represent their neighbors. Nevertheless, I digress.

At this point in time SB54 may allow the Legislature to amend it in the future, but there is no reason why the Legislature should cave to a vocal, well funded superminority. Instead, they should return to the original bill and let it stand on its merits. Even in that case, the threat CMV poses is marginal at best. They don’t have the signatures they need or they would have announced that in their press releases (i.e. “CMV now has over 100K signatures and has exceeded the needed number of signatures in 25 of 29 Senate districts). The Legislature should call their bluff and see what CMV has.

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