Time is short, but Utah lawmakers still have some ideas about how elections work
Update: HB39 has cleared the House on a 43-26-6 vote and will now move to the Senate. Our original story continues below.
Utah lawmakers haven’t forgotten about elections this session.
While a lot of attention has been on controversial social issues, like a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors, school vouchers or abortion, elected officials have dabbled with altering the way Utah conducts elections.
Two bills focus on different aspects of the election process. SB189 sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Kennedy would let county clerks decide whether to conduct elections via mail or in person. That decision would have to be signed off by the Lt. Governor’s Office, which oversees elections.
But the legislation isn’t poised to go far, at least not this year. It is stalled in the Senate Rules Committee and is unlikely to make it out before the session ends on March 3.
“There's an agreement that he's [Sen. Kennedy] not going to run that this year,” said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers. “It's one of those ones he'll carry over [into next year].”
Utah was among the first states to use vote by mail and now it’s the main way Utahns cast their ballot. Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson applauded Utah’s election system for having minimal hiccups during the 2020 election when other states were ironing out the process for the first time due to the threat of COVID-19.
But the method sparked false accusations that the presidential election was rigged.
Since then, many county clerks across the country — including in Utah — have faced heightened pressures to secure voting.
Despite concerns from some members of the public, Vickers noted the majority of Utahns feel confident in the state’s election process.
A 2022 Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll found around 80% of Utahns believe state elections are safe and secure.
Democratic Sen. Jen Plumb said the Minority Caucus believes Utah’s elections are “solid” and that there would “have to be a pretty decent reason” to disrupt the current system.
It doesn’t mean tweaks to Utah’s election system are off the table, though. Vickers assured that “election process concepts” would resurface during the interim.
Senate President Stuart Adams said the state “could always get better” when it comes to elections.
The second bill, HB393, would remove the signature-gathering route to make it on the ballot if a candidate receives 70% of the delegate vote at a party convention. If a candidate receives the votes they need from delegates, they would automatically be on the general election ballot, thereby pushing aside others who received enough signatures to be placed on the primary election ballot.
This would essentially overturn SB54 which went into effect in 2014. The bill created a dual pathway for candidates to land on the primary ballot through convention or signature gathering.
The group Count My Vote was behind the initiative that paved the signature-gathering path. Until then, caucusing was the only way to vote for a primary candidate. Executive Director Taylor Morgan said that process was exclusionary because the only way to participate was to show up in person to caucus.
“So if you're deployed overseas in the National Guard, if you're a diplomat, if you're an LDS missionary, if you're an ER doctor, if you're helping your kids with their homework or you're at their basketball game, you are excluded from participating in the caucus convention path,” Morgan said.
A 2017 poll found 70% of Utahns approve of signature gathering for a candidate to get on a primary ballot.
Republican Rep. Jordan Teuscher’s bill isn’t the first of its kind. Similar bills have emerged in past sessions but have never gained much traction.
In committee this week, Teuscher said he had concerns about signature gathering because it crowds the candidate field and lowers caucus participation. He added it’s a waste of time and resources when the convention nominee who wins the general election the majority of the time has to endure a primary election.
“You've forced these candidates into a race where they have to expend more resources, they have to get more people involved in the process to go and talk and they get beat up in that process,” he said.
For Teuscher, HB393 solves that problem. If a candidate has gathered enough signatures they “would be on that primary ballot” only if the party convention candidate doesn’t receive 70% of the delegate vote.
But Morgan opposes the bill as it currently stands. The organization wants to keep the signature-gathering path because it forces candidates to connect with voters instead of candidates who might mingle with only those who can show up to the caucus.
“Our concern is that forcing every candidate to go through the caucus convention path, that gives back to the parties exclusive control of who gets on the primary election ballot.”
Morgan admits SB57 “isn’t perfect” and is open to changing parts of the law, like lowering the signature threshold for candidates to get on the ballot. But he also said the Legislature is “not necessarily willing” to amend the current statute to lower the number of signatures needed.
The bill hit the House floor on Wednesday. But Teuscher motioned to circle, or hold, the bill. It could receive a full debate before the session ends if Teuscher decides to bring it back. (Ed. note: see update above)
If the bill passes both chambers, Morgan has a plan.
“That would trigger a new statewide initiative for direct primary elections,” he said. “We hope that we can avoid that by working together with Rep. Teuschner and with leadership.”