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State Rep. Rich Cunningham voted against SB54 two years ago. He disliked the legislation that would allow candidates to get around the traditional caucus-convention system by collecting enough voter signatures.
"Ironically," he laughingly acknowledges, "now I'm the poster child for SB54."
Without it, state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, would have eliminated Cunningham in their Senate race at the Utah Republican Convention Saturday by winning more than 60 percent of delegate votes. But Cunningham survived because he had also collected enough signatures to qualify for the primary.
"I felt it would be political suicide if you didn't go both routes," the representative from South Jordan says of his primary campaign strategy. He was right.
At the conclusion of the caucus-convention season, Cunningham is one of four candidates this year for federal, statewide or legislative office who survived defeat at the convention by also collecting signatures one clear effect of SB54.
The others are Chia-Chi Teng, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz in the 3rd Congressional District; Glen Jenkins, who is taking on state Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake; and Xani Haynie, facing Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove.
Two other candidates skipped the convention process and gathered signatures instead. They are Mike Brenny (facing a primary in House District 6 against Cory Maloy) and Richard Moore (in a primary against Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Salem).
Some other possible effects of SB54 may be less obvious, including shaping the final ballot in dozens of races without any direct voter participation.
That happened because SB54 was a compromise that preserved the caucus-convention system. The original Count My Vote ballot initiative had proposed to ask voters to replace that system with a direct primary. SB54 combined both systems and was enacted by the Legislature and governor in exchange for ballot initiative organizers dropping that effort.
SB54 effect • Because the caucus-convention system survived and continued this year, the following occurred in the 99 races for federal, statewide or legislative races in Utah:
• Only 14 contests will be decided in the June 28 primary election, including the six forced by signature gathering
• Conventions eliminated all in-party challengers in 33 races; under Count My Vote's plan, all those races would have gone to the primary ballot
• In six legislative races, convention delegates essentially picked the final winners that's because no one from other parties is running against these nominees
Such early victors include Republican Jefferson Moss in Utah House District 2, and Reps. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City; Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine; Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi; Keith Grover, R-Provo; and Norm Thurston, R-Provo.
Candidates are also unopposed in 16 other legislative races (after some withdrawals by initial challengers). Utah State University political scientist Michael Lyons blames that on gerrymandering to create safe districts for parties so people in opposing parties often don't bother to enter the arena against overwhelming odds.
Overall, that means that before the primary, winners are pre-determined in 22 of 90 legislative races 1 of every 4. In another four races, Republican or Democratic nominees now face competition only from minor-party challengers meaning their election is all but guaranteed.
The 16 unopposed legislative candidates include Republican Val Potter in House District 3; Sens. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe; and Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan; and Reps. Ed Redd, R-Logan; Mike Schultz, R-Hooper; Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville; Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City; Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City; Brian King, D-Salt Lake City; Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek; Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green; Jon Stanard, R-St. George; Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton; Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork; John Westwood, R-Cedar City; and Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara.
Reactions • Politicians disagree about whether such effects from SB54 are good, bad or indifferent.
"There are more primaries because of conventions than SB54, imagine that," by an 8-6 ratio, noted Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans. He said that's evidence that the caucus-convention system still allows more voter participation in close races than critics acknowledge.
"We believe our caucus-convention system is very effective. It's cost-efficient. It has a low barrier of entry that allows individuals who don't have a lot of money to have a fighting chance" by targeting a few delegates instead of all voters, he said.
He said the Utah GOP sued, seeking to overturn SB54, because it believes it should be able to choose how it selects its nominees. The party will decide at its June central committee meeting whether to endorse candidates who did not qualify through the caucus-convention system, he said, and whether to continue its court fight against the new signature-gathering law.
Rich McKeown, of Count My Vote, said direct primaries in the 33 races where conventions eliminated intra-party challengers would have been an "effective" way to choose nominees in a system "more aligned with the modern way that we deal with selecting candidates."
Even under the compromise SB54, he believes more people would have collected signatures, except for confusion created by GOP lawsuits challenging the new law. But with some success this year, he predicts that signature gathering "is a process that people are now going to be willing to adopt" as a "legitimate way to get on the ballot."
Cunningham is a convert to the benefits of SB54, but he says delegates hate it and will likely punish those who use it.
"It turned into a nightmare at the convention," Cunningham said. "I was turned on like you couldn't believe. I had people in my face and pointing fingers in my chest telling me that I'm not a real Republican" because he collected signatures, even though his opponents had registered to attempt to collect them, too.
"I think SB54 is why I lost at the convention," Cunningham says. In the end, though, it saved him. SB54 signature gathering is also seen as a reason some candidates who used the new process were forced into primaries, including Gov. Gary Herbert and state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the sponsor of SB54.
Voter interaction • Cunningham points to what he sees as positives to signature gathering, saying a lot of residents were happy to be included in the process and get a chance to express their views on issues.
Teng, the Brigham Young University professor who used signatures to advance to the primary against Chaffetz, agreed. He used a mix of volunteers and paid petition passers to obtain signatures, but he says he was involved in the gathering every day.
"To us, it's more of a canvassing opportunity, a way to build grass-roots support," Teng said. "Every morning, workers would bring us questions that they received from the day before, and we would answer them."
Chaffetz attacked his challenger for "buying votes" by paying signature gatherers. But Teng counters that Chaffetz was buying votes at the convention, too, with freebies for delegates. "He probably spent as much just on the booth at the convention as we spent on the whole convention process, period," Teng said.
Heather Gardner, who was eliminated at the convention by one vote in a race against Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, likes the convention system, but she sees problems with it and with collecting signatures.
For example, she said rules allow people to sign petitions for only one candidate in a race. Weiler quickly canvassed their area for names, she said, making it difficult for her to follow if she also decided to seek names.
And she complained formally about shenanigans at the convention, which she says raises questions about whether she lost fair and square (although party leaders rejected her complaints).
In the first round of voting, won by Weiler, two more votes were cast than there were registered delegates present.
The result was discarded, and credentials were closely checked. But more late-arriving delegates were allowed to vote and Gardner was eliminated.
"Delegates have been calling me constantly since the convention, complaining about what happened," she said.