What is SB54 and why should I care?
SB54 was a law passed in 2014 that created a second way for people to get on the ballot as a member of a political party. So why is that a problem?
First, we have to understand two things: 1. how the political parties select their nominees and 2. the First Amendment protects the Freedom of Association.
Before SB54, candidates used to gain access to the ballot through a grassroots, neighborhood process that made it much more difficult (although not impossible) for Big Money to be the only reason someone made it onto the ballot. Every March, you and your neighbors would get together as a precinct for your political party and vote in YOUR NEIGHBORS, as delegates, to vett candidates. The beauty of this system is that, like all good government, it separates powers, instead of consolidating power, and it is local, as local as your neighborhood. Then for 6-8 weeks, those delegates would meet with candidates running for office and ask them whatever questions they wanted. They could hold incumbents accountable for their votes, and they could spend time on very nuanced issues, as well as obvious ones. Plus, there is something about looking a candidate in the eye and having them tell you where they stand on any issue. Those delegates would then vote on which candidate (or candidates) would end up on the primary ballot. If a candidate received more than 60% of the delegate votes, there would be no primary election, and that candidate would move on to face the other parties’ candidates in the general election in November. However, if no candidate received 60% of the delegate votes, then the final two candidates would face each other in a primary election to determine who would be the party nominee. This allows for good vetting, reduces the amount of money involved in campaigns (as well as, oftentimes, political influence).
So what was wrong with that system? Well in 2010, then-Senator Bob Bennett was not favored by enough delegates and lost to two “upstarts” Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee. Bob Bennett was not allowed onto the primary ballot, where his money and incumbency would work to his advantage. It is actually evidence of that system of accountability working correctly. Mr. Bridgewater and Mr. Lee faced off in a primary election, and Mr. Lee won the nomination, despite winning only second place from the delegates. This angered the Powers-That-Be because they realized they couldn’t sufficiently influence local people in their local neighborhoods to do what they wanted with Big TV buys and money. People who talked to the candidates in person had a different perspective than what TV ads might be able to portray.
Enter SB54, creating a signature path to the ballot. This means that a candidate can effectively buy their way onto the ballot for a given political party through paying companies to gather signatures. They don’t have to face their constituents or answer hard questions. Everything can be handled through Big Money and Big Marketing. Grassroots is so passé.
The other problem is expressed during questioning about SB54. ‘Chief Justice Tymkovich illustrated the fundamental weakness of SB54 when he asked, “So a Bernie Sanders could declare, I am a Republican, and get his name on the ballot? And the Republican Party has no ability to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you’re not a Republican!’?” Since the First Amendment protects our Freedom of Association, should a political party which exists to enact its principles through those who best respresent those principles while in office, not have the right to determine for itself how those people are chosen? Should a religious organization, for example, be forced to have it leader be an athiest? And yet, SB54 allows for just that sort of thing.
Those who support SB54 claim that the delegates are “too extreme” and “it’s a small group of people who determine the candidates on the ballot.” And yet, that group of people are people who live in your neighborhood. At any given time, you have people who you know and who live by you who have interviewed and asked tough questions of our Governor, our sitting US Senators, and every other partisan political office. So, which is better? A system where Big Money and Name Recognition, with little thought to principles, rules the day? Or a system where local people from every local precinct (roughly a neighborhood) have been elected by those who live nearby to research and to ask hard questions of those who seek to represent them? Which system is more grassroots, less centralized, and more in line with self-government? If you said, grassroots, you’re right. And that’s why we need to get rid of SB54. As long as someone can pay for signatures, there’s no reason to talk to constituents, and worse, there’s less accountability for what officials do while they’re in office.