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Opponents of Utah’s new flag want voters to have the final say

Utah Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, unfurls the state's new flag during a Senate media availability on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Salt Lake City. Opponents of the new state flag have filed a referendum in an attempt to bypass the Legislature and let voters decide on the design.
Rick Bowmer
/
AP
Utah Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, unfurls the state's new flag during a Senate media availability on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Salt Lake City. Opponents of the new state flag have filed a referendum in an attempt to bypass the Legislature and let voters decide on the design.

The Legislature narrowly passed the new state flag design – but not without pushback.

Utahns and lawmakers alike were vocal about their disinterest in the process. Some believed it was erasing Utah’s history, others thought the Legislature had bigger fish to fry during this year’s 45-day session.

Approval for the updated state flag came on the second to last day of the session, while still keeping the current flag adorned with the Utah seal for ceremonial purposes. To Republican sponsor Sen. Dan McCay, it felt like the best of both worlds – a new state flag and preservation of the flag that has represented Utah for the last 100 years.

That sentiment wasn’t shared by every Utahn, though.

Soon after McCay's bill passed its final hurdle, a group started organizing a referendum against it. They filed paperwork with the Lt. Governor’s Office earlier this week. If the group can gather 134,298 signatures by April 12, it will be up to voters to adopt the new flag or not.

The lead sponsor of the referendum, Chad Saunders, said the initiative has grown beyond just the flag. While it started with the disapproval of the design and questioning the need, he doesn’t believe the Legislature kept constituents in mind during the process.

“The flag is the vehicle that's driving the issue,” he said. “The real issue now is our legislators listening to the voters, and is our way of reminding them … we vote you in to represent us.”

However, he stressed this movement “isn’t a referendum on Dan McCay,” rather it’s about “Utahns being heard.”

Freshman Republican Rep. Trevor Lee is all for leaving the decision up to voters. He believes it should have been that way from the start.

“On issues such as our entire identity as a state or a flag or historic symbol, I think that's something that we should be voting on directly. It should have been put on the ballot.”

Lee also expressed concerns about the overhead cost associated with switching out the flag and losing historical knowledge of the current state flag.

One of the reasons House Majority Leader Mike Shultz advocated for a new flag was because he believed the one Utah has flown for a century, a dark blue backdrop with the state seal, was a little too generic.

“I hope by the time today’s over I don’t have flag envy of other states,” he said on the House floor on March 2. “I hope that we all have a flag that we can fly in Utah and we can be proud of.”

But Saunders believes the new flag, with the iconic beehive inside a gold hexagon, a star underneath to represent Utah’s original five Indigenous nations and white mountains in the background, is “too watered down.”

He doesn’t hate the design and argues it would make “a great logo” instead.

Although the referendum paperwork is already filed, Saunders recognizes there is a lot of work that is yet to be done. He’s been encouraged by the amount of support backing the effort in just a short period of time.

The Facebook group that started the day after the legislative session ended, already has more than 2,000 supporters. He added that people from all over the state and across the political spectrum have also called to ask what they can do to help gather the signatures to place the issue on the ballot.

Per state rules, it’s a bit more complicated than just collecting over 130,000 signatures. In order for the referendum to be approved and make the ballot, they need 8% of active voters from the last general election from at least 15 of the state’s Senate districts.

That doesn’t discourage Saunders, though.

“People in Utah aren't afraid of hard work. So I think we have a real chance to make this a reality.”

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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