There were exciting highs and disappointing lows on the last day of the 2013 Legislative Session.
Better UTAH was the talk of the Capitol on Thursday. Late Wednesday night, Senators Niederhauser, Davis, Dayton, and Knudsen held a press conference to announce an unprecedented suspension of rules to introduce a brand new bill. And when I say late, I mean 11:00 p.m. — not your typical press conference timeframe.
The new bill, SB289, Election Offense Amendments, sponsored by Senator Knudsen in the Senate and Representative Handy in the House, is in direct response to our election law violation claim made with the Lt. Governor’s Office against Attorney General John Swallow. Turns out Utah’s legal code states that any claim of election offenses the Lt. Governor’s Offices finds to have merit is then turned over to the Attorney General for investigation. Clearly, in this case that would have been a conflict of interest since it would have the AG investigate the AG.
It was exciting to see the wheels of the people’s business move so quickly. By 8:00 pm the bill had passed the Senate Government Operations Committee, the full Senate, and the full House, all unanimously.
If only it was that easy for all good legislation. Unfortunately, another bill we had been very involved with did not fare so well.
HB91, Election Day Voter Registration, is a great piece of legislation that would allow votes cast on election day by unregistered Utahns, to actually be counted. It is a bill that has been worked on for several years, not just in General Sessions but also through interim committees and field work with clerks.
This year was different than in past sessions–the typical opposition wasn’t there. It had bipartisan support, leaders of both main political parties were supportive, and activists and organizations (both conservative and progressive) were in favor and lobbying for its passage.
The bill sponsor, Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck, worked tirelessly to ensure support and midway through the session it looked like this was going to be the year. It sailed through the House Government Operations Committee and passed with a very large margin from the full House, then it went to the Senate.
(Cue the ominous music).
The Senate can seem, all too often, like the place good bills go to die a cold, miserable death. Unfortunately for HB91, this was exactly what happened. But the most frustrating part of its defeat was not the defeat itself but the opposition that caused its demise–the various Utah county clerks. And what was their biggest concern? Not rampant voter fraud or other nefarious plots heard before in voter rights discussions. No, their biggest concern was that it might make more work for them and their staff.
As county clerks, their job is to count votes, to encourage voters, and to alleviate obstacles. Instead, they have become the obstacle themselves.
They bombarded their elected senators’ phones and emails and in the end, they held sway over the vote and the bill was defeated by the Senate 18 to 10.
It isn’t over. Representative Chavez-Houck is certainly disappointed and a bit defeated but she is far from beaten. As I left her on the House steps late last night, she was already planning her next steps and figuring out her strategy for “schooling” the clerks on the importance of this bill. It will be back in interim and next year, we’ll all be back on the Hill, lobbying every single Representative and Senator until we celebrate its passage.
Sometimes they’re quick, sometimes they take years, but we have to believe that a really good bill will ultimately prevail. That’s what this exhausted, disappointed, elated, and sometimes cynical “participant-in-the-process” reminds herself every single day.
On to 2014!