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Utah Lawmakers Consider Allowing Parties To Eliminate Signature Gathering Path To The Ballot

Photo of a hand holding a white envelope with instructions on how to return a mail-in ballot.
Renee Bright
Political candidates can earn a spot on a primary ballot by gathering a certain amount of signatures or by being nominated by delegates at their party’s convention.

Currently, Utah political candidates can earn a spot on a primary ballot by gathering a certain amount of signatures or by being nominated by delegates at their party’s convention.

But the signature gathering path to the ballot could be going away if a bill in the state Legislature passes.

“By adding the signature process as a path to the ballot, we've increased the amount of money that candidates are spending on getting on the ballot,” said bill sponsor Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton. “We have created this closet industry of paid signature gathering.”

McCay’s bill is the latest chapter in a long battle over the practice. It would modify SB 54, a 2014 law that created the two tracks for candidates to qualify for the ballot. Previously, candidates could only qualify through the convention.

The Republican Party unsuccessfully challenged it in court. The lawsuit was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately declined to hear the case. In addition to legal challenges, the Utah GOP hastried for several years to change it in the state Legislature.

McCay’s bill this year is the latest attempt. It has now passed its first vote in the Senate, and is waiting on one more vote before heading to the House. The bill would need to make it through the House in the next week, before the Legislative session ends.

SB 54 was a compromise between lawmakers and a public policy group called Count My Vote. It replaced a ballot proposition that would have only allowed for the signature gathering path.

According to the group’s spokesperson Taylor Morgan, McCay’s bill was drafted without their input.

Morgan said keeping the signature gathering path is critical.

“Historically, party delegates, party insiders have been far apart in terms of positions and priorities from rank and file voters in the parties,” Morgan said. “They're essentially extreme and radical, if you will, and they don't necessarily represent the party at large. … And so in SB 54, when we have dual paths to the primary election ballot, the parties are a far better representation of their voters.”

If McCay’s bill passes, Morgan added, Count My Vote could try again to pass their original ballot proposition to get rid of the convention system. They could also try to pass a referendum to repeal McCay’s bill.

Morgan said concerns that signature gathering favors wealthy candidates are valid, but the state should lower the number of signatures needed instead of eliminating the option.

Party delegates are typically more radical than the average voter in that party, according to University of Utah Political Science Professor Matthew Burbank. He said that’s true for the Republican and Democratic parties.

Burbank said the Republican party has repeatedly tried to eliminate the signature gathering process because it means the convention system doesn’t have ultimate control over who’s on the ballot.

“The most basic reason is political power, because the caucus convention system tends to reward people who have more extreme conservative views on the Republican side,” he said. “And this is something that among Republicans has always largely been regarded as being a good thing, that delegates tend to be fairly conservative.”

Burbank said there’s a downside to that strategy.

“Sometimes what that's meant is they've picked people who were not good nominees because they were so focused on this question of: is this person conservative enough?” he said.

Burbank said this bill, and Count My Vote’s pledge to take the issue to the ballot again if it passes, is yet another sign the debate isn’t going away any time soon.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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