When legislators passed Senate Bill 54 almost two years ago, a process that allows dual ballot paths for candidates — signature gathering and caucus nomination — it was a compromise designed to end a petition effort from Count My Vote that, had it passed, would have ended caucuses.
Before the bill was finalized, the lieutenant governor’s office asked for a clarification on some aspects, said Mark Thomas, Utah director of elections for the lieutenant governor’s office.
One of the clarifications that legislators added late was a so-called “exclusivity clause.” It fixed a one-signature-for-one-candidate rule. That means if Candidate A gets a signature from Voter A, then Candidate B cannot use Voter A’s signature for his petition. This clause has fueled even more controversy over a Utah elections law change that has already divided the state Republican Party. Its harshest critics suggest the clause could make SB54 illegal. A larger number of detractors think the Legislature needs to go back and undo the exclusivity clause.
State Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who is assistant majority whip, said it’s likely that the Legislature will revisit SB54, and he hopes the exclusivity clause is the subject of “vigorous debate.”
“I would allow citizens to sign more than one petition,” Wilson added.
State Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden, said that without any legislative fix, the clause will lead eventually to a lawsuit. “You’d have to have a contested race ... someone with a grievance,” he said. He expects a lawsuit within the next couple of election cycles.
“The Legislature basically had a gun to its head because of Count My Vote,” Peterson said. And now, thanks to disputes between the state and the GOP party, many candidates are left worried about getting on the ballot and contracting with private firms to gather signatures. The candidates with the deepest pockets of cash, say Peterson, will be able to spend the money needed to get many signatures and lock others out of the race.
“You write a check to a vendor, he’ll get you on the ballot and you’re good to go,” added Peterson.
If they think it’s illegal, “tell them to take the case to court,’ said state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo,, who sponsored SB54. To Bramble’s knowledge, however he’s unaware of any states that limit signing only one candidate petition in any particular race. The exclusivity clause was placed to remove the state Republican Party’s opposition to amending SB54, adds Bramble.
”(Many) are intending to preserve the caucus-convention system,“ he said.
Rick McKeown, executive co-chair of the Count My Vote effort, would also prefer that the exclusivity clause go away. ”That was not a part of the original Count My Vote petition. (It) was a legislative component that was added to it,“ he said. He’d like to see legislators change the law and get rid of the clause.
”Expanding the capacity and availability of the ballot to more people“ is the goal of the Count My Vote movement, McKeown said. With the exclusivity clause, ”it’s a limitation,“ he said.
Jonathan Johnson, Republican candidate for governor, has already decided not to gather signatures, preferring to take his campaign against Gov. Gary Herbert to the state caucus convention. If the intent of SB54 is to make it easier to have ballot access, then the exclusivity clause could be challenged.
”It probably is illegal,“ Johnson said. The difficulty and cost of gathering signatures makes it difficult for candidates without lots of funds. ”It creates a hurdle.“
Despite his skepticism that SB54 can be challenged, Bramble is sympathetic to exclusivity clause concerns. ”I would prefer citizens be able to sign as many petitions as they like,“ he said. But, Bramble added that at the caucus, delegates are only able to vote for one candidate.
”I would be hard-pressed to say they have a claim,“ added Bramble, referring to many exclusivity clause detractors.
To the lieutenant governor’s office, said Thomas, ”it doesn’t matter one way or the other.“ One solution, the exclusivity clause, makes it harder to gather signatures. Not having the clause makes it easier, he added. The lieutenant governor’s office is only counting the exact number of signatures a candidate needs; the rest are ignored. But Thomas admitted that any extra signatures, counted or not, still can’t be used by competing candidates.
”I’m not sure everyone ... considered the implications“ when the final language for SB54 was provided, Thomas said.