Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Frank Pignanelli and LaVarr Webb: Signature-gathering period in primary election process marks new era

The signature-gathering period for candidates to get on a primary election ballot began last week, marking a new era in the political party nomination process. We explore the cheers and jeers provoked by this new process.

What is the impact now that candidates can secure a primary ballot spot without going through the caucus/convention system? Will this spur more participation? Will many candidates even use the new process?

Pignanelli: "The difference today is that, in both parties, the very extreme elements control the nomination process.” — Hamilton Jordan

I frequently watch my teenage children agonize whether to ask a date to the prom. (i.e. "Should I ask him/her?" "How much will it cost?" "What will my friends think if I do or don't ask him/her?")

Similar emotions are plaguing many Utah politicians whether to participate in the new petition signature process (i.e. "Should I do this?" "How much will it cost?" "What will voters think of me if I do or don't gather signatures?”)

Teenagers — and these candidates — deserve our sympathy.

Responses to the new process are generating unexpected results. Politicians predicted to use the signature process have opted to gamble solely with delegates. U.S. Sen. Mike Lee defied many assumptions by stating he will utilize both roads to the nomination (a brilliant decision as it creates difficulties for challengers).

It's too early to determine any ideological shifts. But expensive signature collection has altered campaign finance. Candidates are fundraising earlier and more aggressively. Politicians who once eschewed corporate and special-interest contributions are now welcoming all donors as their costs have dramatically increased.

So the admonition to well-intentioned election reformers is the same that I give to my teenagers: “Be careful what you ask for."

Webb: As a proud volunteer for Count My Vote and a supporter of SB54 (the compromise bill passed overwhelmingly by the Legislature and signed by the governor) — which provides the dual track to get on the ballot — I couldn’t be more pleased with the way it is rolling out.

In just the first few days of the three-month-long signature gathering period, some 65 candidates filed their declaration of intent to gather signatures. Some easily gathered their signatures in just a few days. That’s a smashing success, especially in the face of hostility, lawsuits, obfuscation, confusion and veiled threats by Republican Party bosses trying to discourage candidates from gathering signatures. Kudos to Sens. Todd Weiler, Curt Bramble and others for standing up to party bosses.

Many races will now be more competitive and won’t be decided at conventions by a tiny minority of party activists. All party members will have the opportunity to decide who wins the nomination, not just a few.

As this new process goes forward in future election cycles, it will make Utah politics much more open and welcoming to a wide variety of candidates, not just those who can make it through the delegate process.

Is this alternative to the traditional convention process a power play by Utah's political elite and not reflective of Utah citizens’ preferences?

Pignanelli: Polls indicate that most voters are unaware or have little interest in the signature petition process. However, the Count My Vote initiative to change the nomination process was prompted by surveys indicating that Utahns were frustrated that a small number of delegates controlled the political process.

The sheer dynamics of the delegate/convention process in both parties pushed candidates to extremes of the political spectrum. Regardless of who funded the activity, the CMV Initiative was a good-faith effort to smooth extremism. The petition signature process was the legislative compromise and reflects the Utah preference for Utahns to try different measures to solve problems.

Webb: Survey research shows large majorities of Utahns of all parties support this alternative to the caucus/convention system. The vast majority of Utah leaders, including past political party chairs, retired politicians at all levels of politics, and the business and civic communities support the new process as a way to encourage political participation.

The old system is still defended by a few dinosaurs, but it is in its death throes. Party bosses are seeing power slipping away, and are desperately trying to salvage the archaic ways of the past. But everyone else has moved on.

Will this new system survive or will legislators ultimately junk it and return to the caucus/convention process?

Pignanelli: If only a handful of officials utilize petition signature process this election cycle, legislators will enact major changes in 2017. However, if Utahns are pleased with having politicians beg for signatures in the snows of January, the system stays.

Webb: It will take a few election cycles for the full benefits of this new system to sink in, but the signature process will become very popular. I vividly remember a state legislator telling me he hated the feeling when his delegates asked him to do something and he had to give their opinions and requests more weight than other constituents. His political future was literally in the hands of delegates. That is no longer the case. All constituents have equal clout. Free at last! Free at last!