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SALT LAKE CITY — A House committee gave preliminary approval to a bill Monday that would unravel parts of last year’s Count My Vote compromise.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, is a third attempt this legislative session to counter SB54, which rose from the Count My Vote initiative to increase voter participation.
SB54 gives candidates the option to earn a spot on the primary ballot by collecting enough voter signatures, as well as through a party’s caucus-convention process.
The new law fanned controversy among Republicans and pushed the state GOP to file a lawsuit, claiming SB54 is unconstitutional and that parties should be free to determine how to nominate candidates.
HB313 is the remaining proposal to address complaints GOP leaders have with SB54 by tackling multiple candidate situations. Under the bill, if during a political party’s primary election no candidate receives more than a 50 percent voter majority, the party can choose a nominee from among the candidates.
Roberts said GOP leaders worry that allowing an unlimited number of possible candidates will result in situations where a nominee can be chosen by a vote that does not reflect the majority’s wishes.
If Count My Vote's desire is that they want every vote to count, my question would be: How does every vote count if the person who gets nominated has less than 50 percent?
–Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin
For example, he said, if four candidates run on a primary election ballot, one could win with 26 percent of the vote.
“If Count My Vote’s desire is that they want every vote to count, my question would be: How does every vote count if the person who gets nominated has less than 50 percent?” Roberts said.
He said there was plain discussion on the House and Senate floors last year that raised concerns about SB54 and its issues with candidate plurality, and so the problem needs to be remedied this year.
Rich McKeown, executive co-chairman of Count My Vote, spoke against HB313, saying the bill would “directly circumvent” the goal of SB54 to increase voter participation. The interests of delegates “don’t always match up” with the interests of voters, McKeown said.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, motioned to hold the bill in committee for adjustment, worried about the possibility that a party would be able to select a candidate that does not reflect a vast number of voters’ desires.
For example, she said, a candidate might not receive more than 50 percent of the votes, but he or she may win by 35 percent or 40 percent of votes, and yet the party would have the ability to still choose a candidate that might receive only 10 percent of the vote.
The motion failed, however, after Rep. Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, said he regularly votes in favor of fine-tuning bills in committees to address such concerns, but the fact that the bill still would have to advance through discussions on the House and Senate floors late into the session puts a time constraint on the bill. He said he's confident lawmakers will have opportunities to make adjustments as the bill moves forward.
Republican Party Chairman James Evans spoke in support of HB313, saying some lawmakers are “demonizing” political parties. He expressed alarm that “there are some that would think so little of any political party to think that we’re not in tune with what the public or the majority want.”
“We want to assure the core principle of any political party, which is that majority rules is what we end up with,” Evans said.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he doesn't believe HB313 violates the compromise lawmakers reached with Count My Vote last year. He said all sides acknowledged then that the Legislature would have to tackle the plurality issue this session.
The bill is a solution, but whether it's the right one could be open to more discussion, the speaker said.
"I don’t want us to not do anything because one side or the other does not like how plurality is addressed," Hughes said.
McKeown called HB313 “a solution in search of a problem.” He said candidate plurality has not yet been an issue, so the new primary system deserves a chance to run through an election cycle before negotiations to change the process take place.
In response to the committee’s decision, the Alliance for a Better Utah issued a news release in which executive director Maryann Martindale said lawmakers are "again attempting to thwart the will of the people by gutting the Count My Vote compromise."
HB313 would "ignore the will of the voters and hand the power back to party bosses to decide who will be the Democratic or Republican candidate for the general election," Martindale stated. "Legislators should vote this bill down once it gets to the House floor."
Evans released a statement in response to the committee's decision, in which he stated lawmakers need to address the plurality issue before the 2016 election cycle.
"This is a fair, democratic way of ensuring that every vote truly does count," Evans said.
Chavez-Houck was alone in her opposition to HB313. The House Government Operations Committee passed it favorably with a vote of 8-1.
The bill now advances to the House floor for further debate.
Contributing: Dennis Romboy
Katie McKellar is a Dixie State University graduate with a bachelor of science in mass communication. Before interning at Deseret News, she reported and edited news content for Dixie Sun News, first as Photo Editor, then as Features Editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org