A group supporting the caucus and convention system for nominating candidates is aiming to put a petition on the 2018 ballot that would repeal SB54, which would completely eliminate the signature-gathering route.
The group, called Keep My Voice, filed their "Freedom of Association" initiative this week. The aim would be to return to the pre-2016 system where candidates would only be able to reach the ballot through a vote of party delegates.
Brandon Beckham, Director of Keep My Voice, says they've been mulling this step for a while.
"This is something that has been brewing for a while. SB54 has done real damage to political parties in Utah," he said. "This involves constitutional rights. If the state can tell a private organization how they can choose their leaders, then that opens the door for someone who doesn't espouse that group's values."
Beckham points to the special election in CD3 to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz who retired suddenly last year. Chris Herrod won the delegate vote to get on the primary ballot, but he lost the GOP nomination to John Curtis who gathered signatures.
"There was some real harm done to Chris Herrod because of SB54," he says. "John Curtis used to be a leader in the Democratic party, and now he's running as a Republican. I'm sure he's a nice guy, but he didn't come close to Herrod in the convention. That undermines the Republican Party being able to nominate the people they want. Currently, we have no recourse against that."
Sources tell UtahPolicy.com that Keep My Voice plans on gathering signatures for their initiative at the March party caucus meetings. They need to collect 113,143 signatures to get on the ballot in 2018. Additionally, backers need to get signatures equalling 10% of all the votes cast for president in 26 of the 29 Utah State Senate districts.
The plan to collect signatures at the neighborhood caucus seems like a sound strategy. More than 175,000 Republicans voted in the 2016 Utah GOP presidential preference election, but that was conducted online. It's not clear whether the group will be allowed to gather signatures inside of the meetings or whether they'll have to set up outside the meetings. Utah GOP Chair Rob Anderson did not return phone calls asking for comment on their plan. Beckham would not elaborate on that idea, only saying they plan to use the party structure to gather signatures.
The Keep My Voice group filed their paperwork to become a political issue committee (PIC) with the state on January 2 of this year.
The Utah GOP is more than $300,000 in debt for legal fees over their lawsuit against SB54, arguing the state cannot force a private political organization to determine how they select their candidates. The state party has lost that argument in both state and federal courts, but they have appealed those rulings to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. A decision is expected sometime this spring.
Chairman Anderson tried to drop the lawsuit against SB54 because of the mounting debt for the party, but that effort was blocked by the State Central Committee. It appears that several of the organizers of the Keep My Voice group are part of the SCC effort to keep the lawsuit against SB54 alive.
The Keep My Voice proposal seems to be a cynical attempt to head off the Count My Vote initiative, which enshrines the current dual-path route for candidates to get to the ballot. Rich McKeown, board member with CMV, says they're not worried about the possibility of having two opposing issues before voters this year.
"Our strategy has always been premised on the notion that voters should decide," he says. "I think what this group is going to find is Utahns really like having more options at the ballot box. Taking away that option is not going to be popular."
Polling shows Utahns favor the Count My Vote proposition which preserves dual-path system for candidates. The latest UtahPolicy.com survey found 64% of Utahns said they supported the Count My Vote proposal. Just 22% said they were opposed. Support for allowing candidates to get on the ballot via signature gathering cut across party lines with 57% of Utah Republicans, 74% of Utah Democrats and 70% of political independents supporting the idea.
"Our group and this new organization have vastly different views of what is good for the state. We will drive that message if we have to. We're not fearful of having the voters vote on this," said McKeown.
McKeown says CMV is making good progress gathering signatures to qualify for the 2018 ballot, and he anticipates they'll cross the threshold sometime in February.