SALT LAKE CITY -- Despite concerns of the constitutionality of telling Utah's political parties what to do and a belief that the legislation may eventually lead to the end of Utah's caucus and convention system, Utah's House of Representatives and Utah's Senate gave final approval to S.B. 54.
On a vote of 49 to 20, the legislation easily passed out of the House on Wednesday and then was quickly given final approval from the Senate two hours later.
Approval in the House, however, did not come without multiple Republican House members, some from Utah County, expressing their frustration with the bill that would create an alternate path to the ballot through a petition process as it dilutes some of the power held in Utah's current election system.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, was the first to speak in opposition to the bill. He stated his concerns when the bill was heard in committee; in his opinion, the Legislature may have no legal grounds for telling the political parties how to handle the nomination process of their candidates.
"This is not our fight I'm afraid," Ivory said. "This is reserved to the parties."
Ivory stated that the ballot does belong to the people of Utah but that the brand name of a political party that would go alongside the names on the ballot belongs to the parties. He noted the court rulings he had reviewed on the issue would indicate that Utah could be challenged in court for passing the legislation and said he would not be able to support it.
Rep. David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain, also opposed the legislation and even had an amendment ready to alter the implementation of the bill. Lifferth drafted an amendment that would have stated the bill could not go into effect until Count My Vote, the group pushing to scrap the caucus and convention system in favor of a direct primary, proved it had the 102,000 signatures it needed to put their initiative on the November ballot. Lifferth pointed to the requirement that a percentage of those signatures come from 26 of the 29 state senate districts and said that he did not believe Count My Vote had enough signatures from the rural areas of the state. He stood down from his amendment to support the Republican caucus position on the bill, which was to support it.
Flaws to the bill were also discussed on the House floor as Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, pointed out that the legislation causes issues for Utah's less populated counties.
Mathis explained that a provision in the bill that calls for county office candidates to only have to obtain three percent of the registered voters signatures to find their way to a party's primary ballot would have a dramatic impact on the races in those small counties.
"That is a family home evening group getting together and signing a petition and putting whoever on the ballot," Mathis said. "That is of real concern to me."
Mathis went on to explain that some of the most hotly debated races in the small counties were county sheriff races. He pointed out if a small group of people had issues with a sheriff they could potentially force that sheriff into a primary. He argued that the number should be raised.
Rep. Jon Stanard, R-St. George, also expressed concerns that under the bill a candidate could potentially be declared a party's nominee without ever earning the majority in a party's primary election.
Hypothetically, if multiple candidates gained enough signatures to put their name on the primary election ballot, the winner of the primary election may not need to earn 50 percent of the votes to win the election but would only need to win more votes than the other candidates.
Stanard went on to oppose the bill as he argued that while the supporters of the bill have said it would preserve Utah's caucus and convention system, he believed the legislation would be the death of the system.
"I would argue that what we are doing is the exact opposite, we are causing the death of the convention system and if we pass this bill, it is only a few years until it is done," he said.
Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, agreed with Stanard. He said a vote in favor of the bill was signing the death warrant for the caucus and convention system. Greene said the compromise with Count My Vote on the bill was preempting the voice of the people as it would prevent Count My Vote's initiative from potentially being placed on the November ballot and voted down.
"The caucus system will shrivel on the vine and die before our very eyes," Greene said. "A 'no' vote at least leaves the opportunity or the possibility that Count My Vote will fail because it is not as popular as some claim it is."
The House sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, agreed that the legislation was flawed but said those issues could be addressed in the future.
McCay said he is not arguing that the bill was even better than the current caucus convention system but he stated that he believed that the legislation was an opportunity to increase voter participation in the state.
He also pointed out that if Count My Vote did obtain the necessary signatures and won in November and the Legislature did nothing that the caucus and convention system would be eliminated.
Following the House's approval of the bill it quickly was returned to the Senate and brought up for final debate.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the chief sponsor of the bill, recognized the flaws in the legislation but said those issues should be addressed in future sessions. He told the senators that his bill will protect the caucus and convention system and motioned for its final passage.
The Senate also easily passed the legislation but did so with some jabs at Count My Vote as they approved it.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he was offended by the tactics that Count My Vote used to fight against the Legislature when the original S.B 54 was introduced. He said it was his opinion that Count My Vote's effort was never about the will of the people of Utah but only about the will of a few wealthy people that live in the state.
The bill is now is headed to Gov. Gary Herbert's desk for his consideration. Count My Vote has said they will stand down from their effort to put their initiative on the ballot once Herbert signs the legislation.