Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Long-term effects of Count My Vote on Utah politics

Last week, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer denied the request for injunction filed by the Utah Republican Party to block implementation of SB54, the Count My Vote (CMV) compromise legislation. The party has said it will continue to fight in court, which fosters important questions:

Should this federal court ruling signal the end of legal and political opposition to SB54, which allows candidates to gather signatures or use the existing caucus/convention system to get on the primary ballot, beginning in 2016?

Pignanelli: "Being stubborn can be a good thing. Being stubborn can be a bad thing. It just depends on how you use it.” — Willie Aames

The maneuverings surrounding changes to Utah's delegate/convention system are nurturing strange results. Bizarre best describes the Utah Republican Party ploy to aggressively litigate against legislation passed by Republican officials. (Of course, party chairman James Evans’ stratagem is reflecting those who elected him — GOP delegates.)

Predictions: Over time, candidates will favor petition signatures in the nomination process, reducing participation at the precinct caucuses. Thus, delegates in all parties will represent a shrinking, but more extreme, pool of party faithful (the horror!). Stubborn activists will demand from the party officials they elected futile agitation against CMV. Sane Utahns will suffer headaches as they frequently roll their eyes in response to such antics.

The CMV bill survived judicial scrutiny because of the brilliant compromise architecture crafted by sponsor Sen. Curt Bramble. He anticipated a challenge and thoughtfully developed a defense against it.

Webb: As a participant in the Count My Vote effort, I’ve watched the Republican Party leadership lose each legislative, legal and public opinion battle as the process goes forward. At this point, it is foolish for Evans to continue his irrational crusade. He is alienating mainstream Republican voters, losing donors and will soon be endangering Republican candidates up and down the ballot.

Republican candidates planning their 2016 campaigns need to know what the nominating process will be. They need to know their Republican affiliation will be noted on the ballot. They need certainty so they can meet deadlines and plan their campaigns.

Evans has had a year and a half to provide certainty by complying with the provisions of SB54. They’re not difficult. The Republican lieutenant governor’s office has clearly spelled out what needs to be done.

But instead of complying, Evans has obstinately fought losing legislative battles and filed losing lawsuits, and still shows no inclination to prepare for the 2016 elections.

I’m surprised Utah’s governor, congressional delegation and legislative leaders aren’t hauling party leaders out to the woodshed to end this potential Republican Party attempt at suicide.

Although we are a year away from the 2016 party conventions, is the CMV compromise legislation already affecting Utah politics?

Pignanelli: Some may deny, but CMV liberated many lawmakers in the past legislative session. Politicos doubt that controversial legislation — especially tax increases and antidiscrimination amendments — would have passed in the same session without the existence of CMV for the upcoming elections. The shouts of delegates are no longer the loudest sounds in the ears of Utah politicians.

Webb: During the session, one legislator told me he is looking forward to the implementation of SB54 because he will no longer have to elevate the wishes of his delegates, even though they are good and well-meaning people, above the opinions and positions of the rest of his constituents.

What are the long-range implications of SB54 on Utah politicians, their campaigns and policy decisions?

Pignanelli: Beyond just allowing for direct primaries, CMV/SB54 provides significant changes of how Utahns select their politicians. For decades the filing period for candidates was always after the legislative session concluded. This schedule provided some (I am trying to be statesmanlike here) dampening of over-politicization of deliberations in the legislative process. Filing — and the gathering of nomination petition signatures — now begins prior to, and continues through, the legislative session. Further, CMV mandates that parties, who conduct primary elections at state expense, must open them to unaffiliated voters. Both changes will have subtle but profound impacts.

Webb: Under SB54, Utah will remain a conservative, Republican state. But political leaders will be less beholden to small groups of delegates — the most outspoken of which are often outside the mainstream — and more responsive to the broader interests of constituents. The new political environment will enhance Utah’s strengths — more collaboration and more problem-solving, reinforcing Utah’s reputation as the state where things get done.

Pignanelli & Webb: We are saddened at the loss of Gov. Norman H. Bangerter. Both of us interacted with him extensively in two different arenas. As a reporter for this newspaper, LaVarr covered the governor's policy and political activities. Frank was a member of the loyal opposition in the Legislature during most of the governor’s two terms in office. We echo the sentiments carried in the media this last week. Gov. Bangerter was a decent, courageous, thoughtful man who represented what is best about our state. All Utahns benefited from his public service.