The Simple, The Complex, and The Convoluted – How Candidates’ Names Make Their Way to the Ballot

electionIt seems it would be simple for a person to decide to run for office, and then for their name to appear on the ballot – and in some cases it is, but that is not the rule.  Here is a quick run down of the simple, the complex and the just plain convoluted ways by which candidates’ names appear on the ballot in Utah.

The Simple

To run in most nonpartisan municipal races, a candidate simply pays a filing fee at their local city hall and they are good to go.  Filing fees are set by the individual municipalities.  If more than twice the number of candidates file for the available number of seats, a primary is held to narrow the field.  The remaining candidates appear on the general election ballot, and the seats are filled in order of top vote getters. 

Real life example from a city council election:

Candidates: Tony, Karen, Mike, Barb, Terrie, and Vern all filed at the city offices and paid their $25 fee.  There were two seats available on the council.  Prior to the primary, Vern chose to drop out of the race.  Five candidates still remained, so a primary election was held.  Terrie received the lowest number of votes and was eliminated.  A general election was held in the Fall.  Karen cleaned house, taking 35% of the vote and secured for herself a seat on the council.  Mike and Barb both received 22% of the vote, but Mike had 8 more votes than Barb, and so took the second available seat. 

This simple process is what covers most city council, mayoral, and local school board elections.

The Complex

To run in a partisan election, a candidate must move through the caucus/convention system.  Candidates file at the respective office and pay a filing fee.  The parties hold caucus nights, usually in March, where neighborhoods meet together and elect from among themselves delegates.  The delegates then attend conventions where they vote on the candidates who filed for office in their district.  If a candidate receives more than 60% of the delegates’ votes there is no primary election.  If a candidate does not receive the 60% threshold, there is a primary election between the two top vote getters from the convention.  The winner of the party’s primary election faces challengers from the other parties on the general election ballot. The candidate with the most votes wins the general election and takes office.

Real life example from the Legislature:

Republican candidates: Nancy, Ross, Mike, Larry, and Sarah all filed for election for an open legislative seat.  None of the candidates were able to secure more than 60% of the delegates’ votes at the convention, which resulted in the advancing of both Mike and Sarah to a primary election.  In the primary Mike prevailed with 52% of the Republicans’ votes, and then faced Constitutional Party challenger Scott in the general election in the Fall (no Democrat filed).  Mike secured his seat in the Legislature with 92% of the general election vote. 

This more complex process is what encompasses all legislative races, statewide races, country races, and other partisan elections.

The Just Plain Convoluted

The one race that has a set of rules completely its own is the Utah State Board of Education.  Candidates for the State School Board file for election and pay their filing fee the same as all other candidates.  Candidates for the State School Board do not declare a party, as the races are nonpartisan.  After they have submitted their names, they are interviewed by the Nominating and Recruiting Committee.  This committee was created by statute, and has on it representatives from various Utah industries including: mining, agriculture, transportation, as well as a local school board member, charter school representative, one parent, and one teacher (see the list here) for a total of 12 members.  Members of the Nominating and Recruiting Committee are selected by the Governor.  This committee is taxed with weeding out candidates and forwarding on to the Governor at least three nominees.  The nominees’ names then are further whittled down by the Governor to the two that appear on the general election ballot.  There is no primary election, all the selection of candidates prior to the general election is done by the Nominating and Recruiting Committee and the Governor.

This process has resulted in much head scratching.  The Nominating and Recruiting Committee is made up almost exclusively of registered lobbyists, and covers some Utah industries but is in no way completely inclusive.  There have been attempts over the years to scrap this process for simple direct nonpartisan elections, and this session Rep. Nielson has a bill that would do just that, H.B. 223. Past attempts at changing the process have stalled over the concern that there would not be adequate vetting if there were direct nonpartisan elections.  State school board seats are large, about twice the size of a State Senate district.  But the reality is, voters who participate in primary elections are by and large the same voters who participate in the caucus process.  They are the voters who are routinely investing the time and energy into learning information about candidates and making informed decisions – which IS vetting. 

While the arguments rage on the caucus/convention system and the Count My Vote initiative, let’s take the opportunity to have a conversation about the MORE convoluted election system in Utah – the one used to elect the State School Board. If anyone is arguing that the current caucus/convention system does not “count their vote”, at least with the caucus/convention system voters have the opportunity to run as delegates or vote to elect delegates.  With the State Board of Election to participate one must be a registered lobbyist, the head of a powerful association, or somehow secure a seat on the Nominating and Recruiting Committee.  In a state where more than half of the budget goes to the State Board of Education, it seems everyone should have a chance to weigh in on its members.  So let’s talk about needed changes in the election process – and let’s hone in on what is truly convoluted.

This post originally appeared on Utah Moms Care.

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