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Dozens of candidates are expected to begin gathering signatures to get on the ballot in 2016 under a new election law, but a handful will face a steep, almost insurmountable climb in their bids for office.
The way the new law is written, combined with a judge's ruling and Republican Party rules, will mean some incumbents would have to get signatures from 1 of every 3 GOP voters in their districts. It is a daunting task that has some questioning the fairness of the new law and may ultimately result in a lawsuit.
Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans blames Count My Vote the group of prominent Utah politicos who pushed for changes to open up the elections process for forcing through changes for the 2016 election.
"This whole creation by Count My Vote is just unfortunate because they insisted on a 2016 mandate that would not allow enough time to work through all the unforeseen consequences," Evans said. "I believe the Legislature had to negotiate with a gun to its head, which is never a good thing."
Rich McKeown, the vice chairman of Count My Vote, said his group wanted candidates to gather signatures from a percentage of voters 2 percent of those registered and that would be a better way. If the threshold set by the Legislature needs to be changed, he said, that tweak could be considered.
Overall, the changes in SB54 were intended to open up the process to more people, and it's the GOP, McKeown said, that has fought that.
"It's been the Republican Party which has obfuscated every piece of [SB54] at every turn, so now they're faced with uncertainty. Where does that come from?" McKeown said. "It's been clear to me it's been the way the party has approached this. … They've made it difficult at every turn."
Swing districts • One of the candidates facing a daunting challenge when it comes to signature gathering is Rep. Sophia DiCaro, a West Valley City Republican who won election in the swing district in 2014.
Like all House candidates, she would need to gather 1,000 signatures from registered Republicans in her district to secure a spot on the primary ballot. But with just 2,805 registered Republicans in the district, DiCaro would have to get 36 percent of them to sign petitions to qualify for the primary.
DiCaro says that by closing its primaries, "an unintended consequence is the Republican Party has basically made it a lot more challenging for swing districts." She says she will gather signatures, but given the high hurdle she has to clear, she will approach it as a way to talk to voters and let them know she is running, while still working toward the party's convention.
"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense," she said. "But it's an opportunity to talk to voters. And I'm just going to focus on doing my job and I'll talk to people like I did before and go from there. If that means I get a few signatures along the way, great."
Other Republicans are in a similar situation. Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, would need to get 35 percent of the GOP voters in his area on board; Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, would need 29 percent; Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, would need nearly 1 in 4, according to the party's voter registration figures.
And that's just for the incumbents. A Republican who wants to gather signatures to run against Rep. Angela Romero, for example, in her heavily Democratic Salt Lake City district would need to get signatures from 57 percent of the registered Republicans to qualify.
It's not how the law was envisioned to work.
Lawmakers who crafted SB54 also wrote into the law that parties would have to open their primaries to unaffiliated voters, meaning the more than 600,000 Utahns who don't align with a party would be free to sign petitions for any candidate from any political stripe.
Closed primaries • But last November, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer ruled that parties can't be forced to include unaffiliated voters in their primaries and the Republican Party, as it has done for 14 years, will only let registered Republicans vote in the intra-party contests and sign petitions for GOP candidates.
With nearly half Utah's registered voters not affiliating with a party, it makes the Republican candidates' job nearly twice as hard.
It's somewhat easier for Democrats who can gather signatures from any registered Democrat or unaffiliated voter because the party has open primaries. Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, would have the toughest task among the incumbents, needing signatures from nearly 11 percent of roughly 8,900 registered voters in her district.
There were closed-door discussions among legislators about holding an emergency session to change the thresholds and tweak other parts of the law, but with signature-gathering starting Monday, that is likely off the table.
"I don't think there's going to be a lot of interest in changing the rules when the game has already started," said Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who was the House sponsor of SB54. "There will be a lot of elements of SB54 that will need revision over time as we settle into an election process. … This signature threshold is one that, over time, will evolve and the most fair way to do it is to have a percentage. Determining what that percentage will be, I don't know."
Evans said he has talked to candidates who may file a lawsuit to challenge the signature thresholds as being too onerous, but no candidate has taken that plunge.
The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down state laws that require a party to gather signatures from 15 percent of number of voters in the previous election, but has upheld a requirement of collecting 5 percent of eligible voters.
McCay, who is an attorney, said those rulings have all applied to cases where the signature-gathering is the only way to get on the ballot. Under SB54, candidates can and, under current disputed Republican rules, must go before delegates at the party's convention to get into a primary.
Two paths • Some candidates, like former West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder, who is running against fellow Republican Cox, are planning to gather signatures for the primary ballot, despite needing nearly 1 out of every 4 Republicans in the district to sign.
"I look forward to getting out there and talking to a lot of people and having the help of volunteers and others to clear that hurdle," Winder said. "Clearly it's easier for a legislator in Utah County to get 1,000 Republican signatures than a candidate in West Valley City or other places. It would be nice at some point if we [addressed that]. But I'm going to play the hand we've been dealt."
Cox is not gathering signatures. He said it would take too much time and money to knock on all the doors necessary.
"It's just really difficult to do. I think somebody with enough money, if they spent six grand or whatever, will figure out how to get enough signatures. But I don't know if we want to fix it so someone has to come up with $6,000 to run for the House," Cox said.
And, as an opponent of SB54, Cox said he "also felt like I would look like a pretty big hypocrite if I used a system that I didn't have to and that I had fought. It just didn't make sense."
Evans has said the party can and will seek to disqualify candidates who either only gather signatures or who go to the convention and don't get 40 percent of the vote from delegates to go to a primary. It would then be up to the state elections office, led by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox to decide whether to keep those candidates off the ballot, although the lieutenant governor has said a candidate who gathers signatures would qualify.
The lieutenant governor's office and the Republican Party are planning to go to the Utah Supreme Court soon and ask the justices to rule on whose interpretation of the law is correct.
If the thresholds are dropped to 5 percent, the task of gathering signatures becomes much simpler, of course.
When Count My Vote proposed changing Utah's elections to make them more inclusive, they suggested requiring candidates to gather signatures from 2 percent of the party's voters, but there was concern from lawmakers that such a low threshold in some instances just a few dozen signatures in a House district would create a flood of candidates and chaos in the primaries.