CEDAR CITY – Legislation addressing issues with Utah election laws is making its way through the state House of Representatives after the Senate unanimously passed it at the beginning of February.
Senators passed SB114S2 23-0. Sponsored by Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo carried the bill formally known as “Election Law Amendments” in the Senate while Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, is pushing it through the House where it is expected to also pass.
Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, is carrying the bill through the House, where it now sits in the Government Operations Committee waiting for a favorable recommendation.
The measure requires runoff elections in primary races where there are at least three candidates unable to garner at least 35 percent of the vote. The bill also calls for the runoff elections to be solely mail-in ballots.
Bramble ran the bill to help resolve issues stemming from SB54, another piece of legislation he carried in 2014 and which he introduced as a compromise to the then-Count My Vote ballot initiative designed to eliminate Utah’s long-standing caucus and convention system used to nominate party candidates.
Gov. Gary Herbert signed SB54 into law in March 2014.
The Count My Vote compromise law allows candidates to get on the primary ballot by choosing to either gather signatures, take the traditional caucus/convention route, or both at the same time.
The legislation met with a lot of controversy on the Hill as critics argued the dual approach creates the potential for one candidate to win with less than 50 percent of the vote in a multicandidate primary.
An example of this occurred in the 2016 Iron County Commission race where the incumbent, Commissioner Alma Adams, won the primary with only 40 percent of the vote when running against Jody Edwards and Sam Brower. Edwards and Brower split the rest of the votes nearly in half, with Edwards pulling in 29 percent and Brower 30 percent.
Iron County’s race would have turned out the same under Bramble’s bill that sets a 35 percent threshold to trigger a runoff election between the two top candidates. Bramble said, however, that he intentionally kept the threshold at a lower number to reduce the chances of a runoff election occurring. He said:
The higher the number, the higher the chance the races will end up in a runoff election. And the more runoff elections, the more it will cost the state. So what number do you cut it off at? Just like Iron County, had the law been in effect and had the threshold been 40 or 45 percent then that race would have ended up with a runoff election. The point is we don’t want a candidate winning with 15 to 20 percent of the vote, but we also don’t want every primary that has multiple candidates to end up in a runoff election.
Under Bramble’s bill, Utah would become the 12th state to allow for runoff elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Similar to Utah, North Carolina and South Dakota have laws that generate runoffs if a candidate does not receive a certain percentage of the vote – 40 percent in North Carolina and 35 percent in South Dakota.
Bramble said he looked at those states and others to determine what threshold to use and what system would be best to deal with the plurality issue.
By solving the plurality issue, Bramble’s bill also put the brakes on a lawsuit the Republican Party had filed against the state over the Count My Vote law. The party lost the initial proceeding in 2014 but have since been sitting on an appeal. The GOP’s Central Committee recently voted to drop the suit after it became clear lawmakers were going to pass Bramble’s new legislation.
Some party hardliners, however, don’t agree with Bramble’s bill and are holding out hope that Count My Vote will be repealed at a future date.
Former Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, recently wrote an opinion piece on his personal blog against the measure. Herrod argues that the bill is an expensive piece of legislation that favors the rich, elite and incumbents.
“I thought we just had a national election about getting rid of the establishment yet in Utah, it’s just the opposite,” Herrod stated in his blog. “SB54 has already been called ‘Incumbent Protection Act.’ SB114 just double downs as the grassroots and those with less financial means are further disadvantaged. SB114 simply furthers Utah’s ‘Pay for Play’ reputation.”
Herrod goes on to maintain that the money that will be spent on runoff elections could be better spent elsewhere, such as for education, an area many in Utah argue is largely underfunded.
Bramble, however, argued that Herrod is a lone wolf in his argument, pointing to the support of the Republican Party and other legislators as proof.
Bramble’s bill also drew some concerns from county clerks throughout the state who said the bill did not provide enough time to hold a runoff election. Bramble modified the bill in a substitute to reflect the changes requested by the clerks. These included moving the date of the primary back a week in June and the registration deadline to the first week in January.
Iron County Clerk Jon Whittaker said Bramble’s changes are satisfactory to him and his colleagues in the state.
“We just had some concerns because there was no way we could pull off a runoff election under the current timeline, so we needed him to make those changes,” Whittaker said. “Now that those changes have been made, we support the bill. Those were just really important to us that they be addressed before the bill passes into law.”
- Read the bill: SB114S02 “Election Law Amendments”
- Fiscal Note: SB114S02 Fiscal Note
- Contact legislators
- Chief sponsor: Sen. Curtis Bramble
- House sponsor: Rep. Daniel McCay
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- Southern Utah Reps. Walt Brooks, Merrill Nelson, Brad Last, John Westwood, Mike Noel, V. Lowry Snow and Jon Stanard | Listing of all members of the House of Representatives