Utah Bill Would Give Primary Voters Less Say on Who Appears on Special Election Ballots

March 17, 2019by Stephanie Akin
"I voted" stickers in San Diego. (John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Utah voters would have fewer opportunities to decide who fills some congressional seats under legislation that passed the state Legislature this past week.

The bill, which has yet to be signed by the governor, would change the process through which candidates appear on primary ballots in special elections to replace members of Congress who die or resign during their terms. For those elections, an option for candidates to make it to the ballot by petitioning voters would be eliminated. Only candidates nominated by party delegates would be able to run.

That’s significant because candidates who have successfully petitioned voters in past elections have tended to be more moderate than those selected by party delegates, said Taylor Morgan, executive director of the state-based advocacy group Count My Vote.

“This cuts out broad party voters when filling a vacancy at a point where it matters most,” he said. “If you allow only the delegates to choose their nominee to fill a vacancy, by the time party voters get to weigh in the next cycle, that person is already the party incumbent and has all the advantages.”

Morgan said the language involving the petition process was added to the bill in the final hours of a long legislative session, attracting little attention during debates about higher profile issues such as Medicaid expansion, tax overhaul and penalties for hate crimes.

The measure is the latest development in a yearslong struggle between factions of the state Republican Party and voting advocates over how candidates are selected in primaries battles, a crucial part of the election process in the heavily Republican state.

That debate appeared to get put to rest this month, when the Utah Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving the 2014 law that created the option for candidates to petition to appear on the primary ballot.

In that case, party leaders argued that it was unconstitutional to interfere with the party’s right to choose how to select its nominees, a position endorsed U.S. Sen. Mike Lee.

Advocates for a more open ballot have pointed to recent elections to show that there is a schism between party delegates and voters at large. That rift was most prominently on display in the 2017 special election to fill the 3rd District seat vacated by Rep. Jason Chaffetz.

Republican John Curtis, who won the special election and now holds the office, was defeated by a more conservative rival, Chris Herrod, at the party convention. But Curtis gathered enough signatures to appear on the ballot anyway and sailed by Herrod in the primary.

Meanwhile, Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, has ”significant concerns” about signing the bill, Utahpolicy.com reported. Representatives of the governor’s office could not be reached for comment Friday.

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