Anti-Count My Vote compromise legislation advances out of committee

A man signs the Count My Vote petition to get the initiative on the 2014 ballot, St. George, Utah, Nov. 30, 2013 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY – Two pieces of legislation aimed at overturning and delaying parts of last year’s “Count My Vote” compromise election law passed committee Friday afternoon during the second week of the 2015 legislative session.

Senate Joint Resolution 2 and Senate Bill 43, both sponsored by Republican Sen. Scott K. Jenkins, passed the Senate Government Operations Committee with favorable recommendations. SJR 2 passed 5-1 while SB 43 passed 4-1 – a member of the committee being absent for the latter vote.

Last year, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 54/SB 54, which amended state election laws and now allows prospective candidates to bypass the caucus-convention system and get their names on a party’s primary ballot once they’ve obtained enough supporting signatures. It also stipulates that the state’s recognized political parties must hold open primaries so unaffiliated voters can participate.

The 2014 law was a compromise between the Republican-dominated Legislature and the leaders of the Count My Vote movement. Count My Vote originally sought to do away with the caucus-convention system entirely and replace it with a direct primary through a statewide ballot initiative. Count My Vote representatives said their group had collected about 100,000 of the 102,000 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot when the compromise was made.

The new law took effect at the beginning of 2015.

Opponents of the compromise, namely the Utah Republican Party, have denounced it, saying the state has no right to tell a private party how to select its candidates. The Utah GOP has gone as far as suing the state government over the matter.

Gov. Gary R. Herbert asked a federal judge to dismiss the Utah GOP’s lawsuit in a response that was filed Monday.

Jenkins’ SJR 2 seeks to amend the Utah Constitution in order to prohibit the state from dictating how a political party goes about “the process of selecting who appears on the general election ballot as the party’s only nominees.”

“A party, any party – this just isn’t the Republicans; so the Democrats, Independents, Constitutionalists, any of those – could decide how they are going to put their candidate on the ballot,” Jenkins said during the committee hearing Friday. “Those guys might want to sit in a room and draw straws. They have the right to do that.”

This measure would overturn the compromise, allowing candidates to bypass the caucus-convention system. Count My Vote supporters have claimed the caucus-convention system is highly exclusionary and that delegates involved do not adequately represent Utah values, further stating the delegates tend to push through “fringe” candidates.

Supporters of the caucus-convention system argue the system keeps current and prospective lawmakers accountable to the people and not deep-pocket lobbyists.

“This undermines the compromise that was reached during last year’s session,” Jenn Gonnelly, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Utah, said.

Gonnelly added that she and others would like to see how the process reached by the compromise plays out during the coming election cycle, rather than having it overturned or delayed before then.

As a proposed constitutional amendment, if SJR 2 passes the Legislature it will be put to a public vote on the 2016 ballot.

SB 43 originally called for the removal of the requirement that political parties allow unaffiliated voters to participate and vote in their primaries. Jenkins introduced a substitute proposal with additional language that delays the implementation of this part of the Count My Vote compromise law until 2017, rather than killing it outright.

Jenkins said it allows the parties time to “get their houses in order” concerning this part of the law.

“It delays Senate Bill 54 for this election cycle and puts it back in place on Jan. 1, 2017,” he said.

With the passage of both measures out of committee and now slated for debate on the senate floor, Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah, a group that supports the 2014 compromise legislation, issued the following statement:

The legislature, led by Sen. Scott Jenkins, has acted entirely contrary to the will of mainstream Utahns by passing out of committee the anti-Count My Vote bills. Their actions today further demonstrate just how out of touch our state legislature is. At a time when Utah voter turnout is at historic lows, the state legislature should be opening the electoral process, not restricting it.

Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans released the following statement after SB43, a bill that would delay implementation of SB54 until 2017, was given a favorable recommendation by the Senate Government Operations Committee:

With SB43 on its way to the Senate floor there will be a robust debate regarding the time frame of SB54’s implementation. The Utah Republican Party believes that allowing political parties until 2017 to comply with the new law is the most prudent course of action. Postponing implementation of the law will not only ensure that the parties have ample time to modify their governing documents and adjust to the new changes, but it will also remove uncertainty surrounding the ground rules candidates will need to be aware of in the upcoming 2016 election cycle.”

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