SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Senate is poised to pass a bill that would step back from a controversial law passed several years ago that allows candidates for political office to gather voter signatures to get on a primary ballot.
Senators originally voted to reject the bill 12-15 on Thursday evening. But they later decided to reconsider it as bill sponsor Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said there were misunderstandings as some thought the bill would take away the option for signature-gathering completely. It then passed 18-11 on the second reading.
McCay said the signature path to the ballot has created unintended consequences.
"We've increased the amount of money that candidates are spending to get their name on the ballot," said McCay, who co-sponsored SB54, which changed the election system in 2014.
It's also increased protection for incumbent candidates, as they usually have the name recognition and resources to gather more signatures, he said, forcing others to turn to the convention system.
I hate this bill, and I'll tell you why. Because if I vote for this bill, there is absolutely no question in my mind that there will be a referendum.
–Sen. Dan Thatcher, R-West Valley City.
SB205 would create four classes of political parties based on how they select candidates. The classes would include parties that choose candidates through convention-only and agree to send the top two nominees to primary unless one gets at least two-thirds of the caucus vote; those that choose candidates through both signature gathering and/or convention; those that choose candidates by signature gathering only; and those that choose candidates by another method.
"I hate this bill, and I'll tell you why. Because if I vote for this bill, there is absolutely no question in my mind that there will be a referendum," said Sen. Dan Thatcher, R-West Valley City.
He believes such a referendum would spell an end to the caucus system altogether.
Groups such as County My Vote, which had a part in SB54, and Alliance for a Better Utah have contended the new bill will reduce voter participation and undo progress over the last several years.
"I'm very frustrated that something this significant and this important did not have great discussion, did not have greater time to prepare, did not have time to go through an interim committee. We're just now in a position on this floor where we either have to vote to make our caucus attendees happy for the last caucus we may ever hold," Thatcher said.
McCay urged lawmakers to put the choice back into the hands of parties.
"We've always erred on the side of giving people options, unless they're political parties, which apparently need the most control of all of it," McCay said.