Congress

Utah bill would give primary voters less say on who appears on special election ballots

Measure is latest development in yearslong struggle over party nomination process

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, right, with his wife, Sue, and Speaker Paul D. Ryan at his mock swearing-in ceremony in November 2017. Curtis won his special election after successfully petitioning to get on the GOP primary ballot. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Utah voters would have fewer opportunities to weigh in on candidates to fill certain congressional seats under legislation that quietly passed the state Legislature this week. 

The bill, which has yet to be signed by the governor and has so far received little attention from local media, would change the process by which candidates appear on primary ballots in special elections to replace House members who resign in the middle of their terms. For those elections, only candidates nominated by delegates from either party would be able to run. Candidates would not be able to make the ballot by petitioning voters. 

That’s significant because candidates who have successfully petitioned voters in past elections have tended to be more moderate than those selected by party delegates, said Taylor Morgan, executive director of the state-based advocacy group Count My Vote.

“This cuts out broad party voters when filling a vacancy at a point where it matters most,” he said. “If you allow only the delegates to choose their nominee to fill a vacancy, by the time party voters get to weigh in the next cycle, that person is already the party incumbent and has all the advantages.”

Morgan said the language involving the petition process was added to the bill in the final hours of a long legislative session, attracting little immediate attention amid debates about higher profile issues such as Medicaid expansion, tax overhaul and penalties for hate crimes.

The change was first reported by the state political news site, UtahPolicy.com.

The measure is the latest development in a yearslong struggle between factions of the state GOP and voting advocates over how candidates are selected in primary battles, a crucial part of the election process in the heavily Republican state. 

That debate appeared to get put to rest this month, when the Utah Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving the 2014 law that created the option for candidates to petition to appear on the primary ballot. 

In that case, Republican party leaders argued it was unconstitutional to interfere with the party’s right to choose how to select its own nominees, a position prominently endorsed by Utah’s senior Republican senator, Mike Lee.

Advocates for a more open ballot have pointed to recent elections to show that there is a schism between party delegates and voters at large. That rift was most prominently on display in the 2017 special election to fill the 3rd District seat vacated by former GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz.

Republican John Curtis, who won the special election and now holds the seat, was defeated by a more conservative rival, Chris Herrod, at the party convention. But Curtis gathered enough signatures to appear on the ballot anyway and sailed by Herrod in the primary. 

In another example, before he was elected senator last fall, Mitt Romney finished second at the GOP convention in April 2018 but won the primary two months later in a landslide. (Romney’s race, though, was for a regular election, which wouldn’t be affected by the bill.)

Under the new bill, a midterm vacancy in the Senate would be filled by someone from the same political party nominated by the state Legislature.  

It is unclear when voters would see a change if the bill becomes law. President Donald Trump is rumored to be considering Utah Rep. Chris Stewart for Air Force secretary, which would spur a special election for his safe Republican 2nd District seat. An aide from Stewart’s office attempted to tamp down that speculation in a statement to Roll Call. 

“Mr. Stewart loves his work in Congress and fully expects to continue to serve the people of Utah’s Second District for the entirety of his term,” she said. 

Meanwhile, Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, has “significant concerns” about signing the bill, Utahpolicy.com reported. Representatives from the governor’s office could not be reached for comment Friday. 

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