SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House passed legislation Wednesday that could lead to the repeal of a controversial election law while ensuring candidates who file to run for office under that law would be on the 2018 primary election ballot.
Many Republicans have regretted voting for a bill four years ago to head off the Count My Vote initiative to replace the state's long-standing caucus/convention system for nominating candidates with a direct primary election. The SB54 compromise maintained the convention but allowed candidates to gather voter signatures to get on the ballot.
SB54 caused prolonged strife within the Utah Republican Party and drove it into debt trying to overturn the law in court. An appeal of a loss at the federal district court level is pending in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
"The Legislature should have never intervened in that," said Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, calling the law an "unmitigated disaster."
The GOP-controlled House overwhelmingly passed HB338, which would repeal SB54 if a renewed Count My Vote initiative doesn't get on the November ballot or if it fails. If the initiative passes, the two paths to the primary ballot would remain in place.
"This, colleagues, will put SB54 in its appropriate place where we should have left it in 2014, which was in the hands of voters," said Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, the bill's sponsor.
"We have in many ways tried to save both parties from themselves, and it turns out that no good deed goes unpunished," he said. "In this situation, that is no deed."
HB338 passed 53-19 and now goes to the Senate. The Legislature will adjourn at midnight Thursday.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said lawmakers negotiated the SB54 compromise with Count My Vote and "feel pretty strongly about not breaking that. There's the argument that part of that agreement was that there would be no initiative."
Niederhauser said the new initiative being circulated by Count My Vote this year is "actually probably a breach of the agreement."
McCay said he no longer feels bound by the deal now that Count My Vote has restarted its ballot initiative, which began as another attempt to establish a direct primary but now fixes issues with the current dual-path system.
Some argue SB54 saved the caucuses and conventions, while others say the law ruined them, said Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork.
"But what we do know is that SB54 has created a divisive issue across the state that continues to rage on," McKell said.
Democrats opposed the bill.
"This bill represents another attack in a series of attempts on the part of legislators to concentrate power where it benefits them," said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. "Utahns should be alarmed by the relentless efforts by their representatives to take away their options as voters and candidates."
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said the bill, in part, is designed to save the Republican Party from itself. Political parties, she said, can change their rules midstream but have to live with the consequences. The state can't do that without violating the Utah Constitution, she said.
Also Tuesday, the House passed another bill, HB485, to keep the law under SB54 in place for the 2018 election.
"We call it the freeze plan," said McKell, the bill's sponsor.
The measure passed 40-31 and now goes to the Senate.
The Republican State Central Committee voted to kick out candidates in two congressional districts who choose to collect signatures to gain a spot on the ballot.
But Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart have not declared their intent to gather signatures — nor has any other Republican in those two districts.
The rule, though, could also have implications for federal, statewide and state legislative candidates throughout the state. It could also threaten the party's standing with the state and puts the party at risk of not getting GOP candidates on the ballot.
The Utah GOP declared itself a "qualified political party" under the law, which allows candidates to get on the primary election ballot by gathering petition signatures, going through the political party’s convention, or both.17 comments on this story
Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said the bill protects candidates across the state who relied on that declaration and who had the rules changed on them midstream. Those candidates need a path to the ballot "not withstanding those who attempt to obstruct them" by either taking away their GOP membership or precluding them from participating in the convention.
"Providing for that protection without a remedy could leave candidates without any recourse, except perhaps judicial review," Snow said.
Senate Republicans have only spoken briefly about both bills and are looking at "McKell's bill fairly strongly," acting Senate Majority Leader Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, said.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche