State lawmakers advanced a bill that would all but eliminate signature gathering as a path to the primary election ballot, forcing candidates to go through the partisan caucus convention system.
Candidates currently have two paths to the ballot: winning over a majority of party delegates in convention, or collecting the required number of signatures from active registered voters. That could change under HB393, which would allow a candidate to skip a party primary and advance to the general election if they get support from at least 70% of the delegates, even if their opponents gathered enough signatures to qualify.
Bill sponsor Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, said one of his first forays into state politics was when he was unexpectedly elected as a delegate during a caucus meeting and had the chance to help select candidates during the county convention. He said SB54 — the 2014 bill that established the dual path to the ballot — has reduced the importance of the process that was "instrumental" in his early political career.
"I've always been a fan of the caucus convention system," Teuscher told the House Government Operations Committee Tuesday. "I think there's a lot of benefits to it. What we've seen in the last 10 years, really with some of the unintended consequences of SB54, is some of the tarnishing of that great process that we have."
Teuscher argued that signature gathering hasn't just reduced participation in caucuses and conventions, he said it has created a long, expensive primary election process for candidates who have overwhelming support at convention and go on to easily win the party's primary.
The most recent example of this occurred during last year's statewide Senate race. Incumbent Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, garnered support from nearly 71% of party delegates, then went on to defeat Becky Edwards and Ally Isom with nearly 62% of the votes in the primary election.
HB393 would save money while reinvigorating the caucus and convention process, Teuscher said. He said it wouldn't completely remove the signature-gathering path, but would result in all candidates showing up at convention to prevent their opponents from reaching the 70% threshold.
Committee Chairman Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven, said he agreed with trying to save money and prevent drawn-out primary contests when one candidate has a clear advantage.
"But, I'm also really a competitive guy and I don't like excuses for losing. And on the surface, it feels like we're fixing it so we don't have to fight a tough fight," Musselman said, asking Teuscher for clarification. "Again, I don't like at all excuses for losing. There's always good ones, but I don't like them and certainly don't want to fix a race."
Teuscher said the intent of the bill isn't to try to boost underdog candidates to victory, and he said he can't remember an example in recent years where a candidate in a statewide race got over 70% at a convention and then went on to lose in the primary.
Opponents of the caucus convention system have argued for years that it diminishes the voice of the people by giving nominating power to a small number of delegates, who tend to be more ideologically extreme than even the median GOP voter. And because Utah votes overwhelmingly Republican, moderate candidates are rarely able to challenge far-right Republican candidates.
SB54 passed in 2014 as a compromise measure, after the Count My Vote ballot initiative threatened to end the caucus convention system entirely. Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, said HB393 would disenfranchise voters from having their voices heard, ignoring that compromise agreement.
"The system itself disenfranchises a lot of people from being able to attend caucus night and have the time off of child care and work. I think that this bill risks disenfranchising thousands of voters at the expense of maybe 100 voters," Dailey-Provost said. "I know that you really believe in the caucus system, but we have this compromise for a reason and I think that this is a couple steps too far."
"This bill promotes exclusivity in elections, rather than promoting more access and participation of voters and candidates," said Elizabeth VanDerwerken, with Mormon Women for Ethical Government. "If legislators are concerned that candidates are not engaging with the caucus and convention system, we feel there are other ways to positively encourage participation from those candidates that would not include punitive measures such as those enacted by this bill."
Proponents of the bill say caucuses can actually increase voter engagement, because those who are able to attend caucuses and conventions are directly involved in hashing out who best represents their interests.
"The caucus system, the ones I remember, had standing room only and out-the-door standing room only because everybody from their neighborhoods and our communities were going to the caucus to pick the delegates," said Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi. "And to me that is a great system, because it's truly a good example of the representative form of government."
Still, voter turnout data shows that there has been a noticeable uptick in voter participation in primaries since the signature-gathering path was established, suggesting more Utahns than ever are able to participate in the process.
According to historical election data, the four primary elections since SB54 have seen the highest voter turnout in more than two decades — excluding votes cast in presidential primaries.
Between 2000 and 2014, voter participation averaged just over 14% in primaries, and hit 20% only once. From 2016 on, voter turnout has averaged nearly 26%, and gone as high as 33% in 2020.
Although academic research shows caucuses reduce the number of people who are able to participate, supporters of the bill say those who do attend caucuses will be much more involved and connected to the process.
"We really appreciate this bill because people make better decisions when they're more informed and more educated and the more involved in the process they are, the more connected they are, the more they care about everything that happens in the elections themselves," said Delane England, with the Utah Eagle Forum.
Regardless of what comes of HB393, the debate over signature gathering is sure to continue.
After Teuscher's bill became public earlier this month, Count My Vote threatened to run another ballot initiative in November 2024 that would ask voters to eliminate the caucus convention option from the nominating process. Teuscher called the move a "scare tactic," pointing out that Count My Vote initially argued for a 70% threshold for convention candidates when debating the compromise included in SB54.
Many Republican lawmakers remain opposed to signature gathering altogether. During the committee hearing, Maloy and Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, lamented that Teuscher's bill doesn't ax the signature option and give party conventions sole power to nominate candidates to the general ballot.
Thurston pointed out that he voted against SB54 during one of his first sessions as a lawmaker, and said he has "no love" for the bill and "for the mess that it's created."
"The simple solution is to get rid of the signature-gathering path and all of this other stuff goes away," he said. "If we want to fix SB54, get rid of it. If the sponsor would come back with a bill that says there is no signature path ... I'm all in — all my chips on that one."
Thurston ultimately voted against HB393, along with the three Democrats on the committee. Having passed committee 7-4, the bill now heads to the House floor for consideration.