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A House committee on Wednesday voted unanimously in favor of a bill creating a primary election for state school board candidates.
West Valley Republican Rep. Craig Hall, the bill's sponsor, said a primary election is necessary to narrow the candidate pool, which included 70 candidates 18 of those for a single seat during the most recent board elections in 2014.
Because a primary is not currently part of state code, Hall said, "We could possibly have someone win the general election in November with 10 percent of the vote or less."
Hall said his bill is intended as a temporary solution for this year's state school board election while lawmakers debate a long-term replacement for the election method deemed unconstitutional in 2014.
In the past, candidates were screened by a nominating committee, which forwarded names to the governor for final placement on the ballot.
But in 2014, a U.S. District Court Judge deemed that the "unfettered discretion" of the committee to accept or reject candidates based on ideology amounted to a restriction of free speech.
Lawmakers failed to agree on a replacement election system in 2015, prompting Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to announce that he would not form a nominating committee for 2016 in response to the judge's ruling.
Mark Thomas, elections director for the Utah lieutenant governor's office, said that based on the court ruling and current law, every candidate for state school board will be placed on the November ballot.
"The potential for that many candidates, or even more, to go on the election ballot is scary for elections officials," he said.
Representatives of the governor's office have said the simplest solution for the 2016 election is a primary, and Thomas said both the governor and lieutenant governor are supportive of Hall's bill.
"They want to ensure we have something in place for this election, should something not come out of this session or later sessions," Thomas said.
But the passage of Hall's bill in committee sets up a rematch between the House and Senate over how to seat members of the state school board.
Traditionally, the House has favored nonpartisan elections, while the Senate prefers partisan elections or an appointed school board.
Last week, the Senate voted 24-5 in favor of a bill that would reform the nominating committee by requiring candidates to be screened based on objective criteria.
That bill seeks to avoid the issues of subjectivity raised by the court ruling, but lawmakers have questioned whether it's a legal fiction to expect committee members to ignore factors like political ideology and educational philosophies when evaluating candidates.
Another bill, sponsored by Highland Republican Sen. Alvin Jackson, would strike a middle ground by dividing the school board into thirds consisting of partisan, nonpartisan and appointed members.
Jackson's bill has not yet received a committee hearing.