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Runoff election bill likely stalled by Utah GOP reversal on lawsuit

By Lisa Riley Roche | Posted - Feb. 28, 2017 at 4:00 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would send the top two finishers in some primaries to a runoff election apparently won't advance this session after the Utah Republican Party reversed a decision to drop a related lawsuit against the state.

SB114, which would require a runoff election if the winner of a primary race with more than three candidate has less than 35 percent of the vote, will be substituted to deal with other issues, the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Dan McCay, said Tuesday.

"Look, we took an option to them and their decision was they wouldn't support it," McCay said of the Utah GOP's vote Saturday to go back on a decision made weeks earlier to end the legal fight over changes to the candidate nomination process.

McCay, R-Riverton, said the bill will be changed to no longer deal with plurality — candidates who win with less than 50 percent of the vote — but election-related deadlines in another bill that was just introduced.

The Republican Party has been battling in court over the 2014 compromise between lawmakers and backers of the Count My Vote initiative that would have done away with the unique caucus and convention process for selecting candidates.

The compromise, known as SB54, allows candidates to skip that process and instead gather voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot, creating the possibility of more than two candidates.

Last August, state party leaders said they would drop the lawsuit if the Legislature came up with an acceptable solution to what was seen as a problem with candidates being nominated with only a plurality of the vote.

In early February, the GOP's State Central Committee voted to do just that as SB114 was making its way through the Legislature after being fast-tracked by sponsor Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo.

Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said committee members since then have pushed for another vote because they'd come up with a way to pay for wrapping up its appeal to the 10th Circuit Court thanks to an anonymous donor.

"If it's five or six months out from that answer, they're saying, 'Is there any way we can get that answer?'" Evans said. He said the party also is "reaffirming its support and appreciation to state officials."

Rather than a runoff election, Evans said the party prefers that voters rank their choices in an election and is backing HB349, sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City.

Chavez-Houck said there's new interest in the bill since the Utah GOP decision, but the $10 million price tag for new voting equipment is making it difficult to get through this session.

Bramble, who also sponsored the 2014 compromise, said he was leaving the decision about SB114 up to the House and stopped short of saying whether he wants to see the House take action on the bill.

"I support the process," he said.

But Bramble made it clear he feels lawmakers have held up their end of the agreement.

"We have fulfilled our committment to put forth a viable solution to plurality. That was based on a committment from the GOP that, if we did so, they would drop the lawsuit," he said. "We negotiated in good faith."

Bramble termed what the state party decided as "a change of direction."

Senate Minority Assistant Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill won support among Democrats in the Senate because it was sound policy. Escamilla said she "personally doesn't care" what the Utah GOP does.

"At the end of the day, our job is to move forward policy that we believes addresses concerns and issues we are facing as a state. To me, plurality was the way to go," she said. "I agree with what was proposed in that bill."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said whether he agrees with state party leaders or not, they're going to move forward with their decision.

"I personally think it's a little disappointing. We're trying to do the right thing here and had gotten some commitments. Now they're going another way. But that's their decision," he said. "They haven't been too successful with that before." Email: lroche@ksl.com Twitter: DNewsPolitics

Lisa Riley Roche

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