SALT LAKE CITY — What some see as a state lawmakers' attempt to chip away at Utah's controversial dual path candidate nomination law ran afoul of the governor.
The Legislature passed a bill earlier this month that blocks candidates who gather signatures — the subject of a prolonged Republican Party fight — from participating in a special congressional elections.
But Gov. Gary Herbert vetoed SB123 this week, saying it "significantly" limits participation and choice to a fill vacancy in the U.S. House as well as voters' ability to choose their representatives.
"That system is working well for both candidates and voters. SB123 establishes a different system that removes choices from candidates and the from the voters," Herbert wrote in his veto letter.
Sen. Dan McCay, R-Utah, the bill's sponsor, said some have mistakenly perceived the bill as pitting signature gathering against convention nominations.
"In my mind, that has nothing to do with the battle over signatures and SB54," he said. "To me, it just comes down to speed versus process."
Under the bill, should a Utah member of the U.S. House resign midterm, the political party would advance two candidates out of a special convention of delegates in the district, setting up a primary election. The winner would go on the general election ballot.
There is no option for signature gathering candidates to get on the ballot.
In 2014, the Legislature passed SB54, which maintains Utah's traditional caucus and convention system for nominating candidates, while allowing candidates to gather signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.
The law touched off a bitter fight in the Republican Party and a prolonged legal challenge that ended earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, letting stand lower court rulings upholding the law.
McCay, who sponsored SB54 as a member of the House, drafted a bill in the 2019 Legislature to repeal the dual path law he helped pass five years ago.
Herbert said although most candidates are chosen in party conventions, recent election results show that Utah primary voters appreciate the choice allowed in the law.
"These options have been embraced by a majority of Utah voters as providing reasonable alternatives to access the ballot," he wrote.
He notes that Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, who ultimately won the election to replace former GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz, gathered signatures to get on the primary ballot. Curtis finished behind former state legislator Chris Herrod at the Republican convention.
McCay said allowing signatures in a condensed special election stretches out the time a district goes without a representative in Congress. It can also be expensive for candidates to hire a firm to collect signatures. One candidate, he said, was quoted $100,000 in the special election to replace Chaffetz.
"You can choose speed or you can choose process. It's really hard to find a compromise that chooses both. This was an effort trying to choose both," he said of SB123.
Voters, McCay said, would have a choice in primary and general elections and "we don't sacrifice the extra time for allowing signatures."
Leaders of the Count My Vote citizens initiative applauded the governor's decision.
Rich McKeown, Count My Vote executive co-chairman, said the dual path has proven effective in increasing participation in elections and is "highly" popular with voters.
"It’s vital that all party voters, rather than just a small group of delegates, can participate in choosing candidates to fill a congressional vacancy," he said.
Republican lawmakers, who were displeased with the way Herbert handled the process to replace Chaffetz, could call an override session to overturn the governor's action. It takes a two-thirds majority vote in the House and Senate to override a governor's veto.
McCay said it's too early know if that's the direction he or GOP leadership wants to go. But, he said, lawmakers need to deal with the process for filling midterm congressional vacancies before it happens again.
Herbert said he also vetoed SB123 out of concerns about the process outlined in the bill for filling a midterm vacancy in the U.S. Senate.4 comments on this story
The bill calls for the governor to choose one of three names nominated by the Legislature. Herbert said the bill failed to explain how the entire Legislature would forward three names to governor.
McCay called the provision a "kind of shout back" to the Constitution before the 17th Amendment, which established direct election of U.S. senators.
The legislation would have eliminated the governor’s role in filling Senate vacancies and allowed party delegates to cut out voters to choose candidates alone, according to Count My Vote.