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Bill giving nominating power to party conventions could make initiatives harder to pass

Posted at 6:03 PM, Feb 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-22 20:03:25-05

SALT LAKE CITY — The leaders of the Utah Republican Party want to be able to do what they used to: Require nominees to seek office through a caucus and convention process.

Senate Bill 205 would allow a political party in Utah to choose to be a "convention party," as Sen. Dan McCay of Riverton called it — meaning they could once again require candidates to make it through their party convention in order to be that party's nominee in the general election.

But McCay, the bill's sponsor, made it clear that another purpose for the proposal has nothing to do with parties and candidate selection.

He says the current system creates clientele for signature gatherers to make a profit, which in turn incentivizes citizens to campaign for initiatives.

"Those initiatives going up is really our number one concern with the signature industry," said McCay, who went on to disparage the rise in voter initiatives in recent years.

"One political scientist calls the initiative process a blunt tool that ends up killing a legislative process," McCay told the committee as he presented the bill.

Members of the public who asked to comment were opposed to the bill.

"This state legislature has a recent precedent — particularly when it comes to matters such as the Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana legalization — of essentially subverting the will of the people when it doesn't suit the party in power," said Jacqueline Prows over Zoom.

The chair of the Utah Republican Party, Derek Brown, testified in favor of the bill.

"What it does is it gives the parties the autonomy to make the decision of what they want to do," Brown said.

Brown's party has fought to change the current system since it was implemented after the 2010 election.

In 2010, Sen. Bob Bennett lost his seat by coming in third place in the Republican State Convention. That result spurred a group of prominent Utahns to form a group called "Count My Vote" to change the nominating process by initiative. In the face of the threat, state lawmakers passed a law forming a hybrid system in which parties could choose primary candidates in a convention while at the same time accepting primary candidates who met a certain threshold of voter signatures.

Republican leaders fought the change in court battles that extended to the U.S. Supreme Court, to no avail.

The Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee gave SB 205 a favorable recommendation, sending it on to the full Senate.