SALT LAKE CITY – Does the Legislature have the authority to tell a state political party, or any private organization for that matter, how to select its candidates? That is a question the Utah Republican Party hopes to get definitively answered via a lawsuit against the state government.
“We want the court to determine the relationship between the state and political parties,” Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said Tuesday, as reported by KSL.com. “Our point of view is the state doesn’t have the constitutional right to reach in and tell us how to select our nominees.”
Evans told media the party will likely file a lawsuit on Wednesday over Senate Bill 54, also known as the Count My Vote compromise bill.
SB 54, signed by the governor in March, was a compromise between the Legislature and Count My Vote, a group that originally sought through a ballot initiative to do away with the caucus-convention system entirely and replace it with a direct primary. Supporters of the Count My Vote initiative included former Utah Republican Govs. Michael Leavitt and Olene Walker, as well as former Utah House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara.
Under the compromise, prospective political candidates can bypass the caucus-convention system and get their names on a party’s primary ballot once they’ve obtained a certain number of supporting signatures. It also stipulates that state political parties hold open primaries so unaffiliated voters can participate. The Utah Republican Party has long held closed primaries.
The compromise was passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature in March and takes effect in January 2015.
Before the law was passed, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, stated he believed the bill violated the constitutional rights of the state party in relation to freedoms of expression, speech and association.
Evans said the lawsuit has less to do with the details of the compromise itself as it does the concept of state interference in party nominee selection.
“That was not our compromise. We had nothing to do with that. Our position has never changed. This is our brand. We’re a private organization,” Evans said, according to KSL.com.
The possibility of a lawsuit has been in the air ever since SB 54’s passage earlier this year. During the Washington County Republican Convention in April, Willie Billings, vice chair of the Utah GOP, said the party leadership was considering suing the state.
During the Utah Republican Convention later that month, a party resolution was passed that reaffirmed the party’s constitutional right of association and the freedom to choose its candidates without state interference. Evans said the state party was looking into ways to challenge the legislation, but didn’t go into detail at the time.
According to KSL.com, Evans said he had invited Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon and leaders of Count My Vote to join in the lawsuit. Neither side has done so as they appear to be happy with the compromise.
“There may be some constitutional questions, but I’m a pragmatist and I think it’s good for the state,” Corroon said, as reported by KSL.com.
Billings told St. George News Friday that he sees the GOP’s lawsuit as an honorable endeavor. The Republican Party itself wants to make sure it is following the Constitution, he said.
“Everybody should be eager to find out what’s constitutionally legal,” Billings said. “We want to seek constitutional clarity on this.”
Defending the law for the state will be Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes. While stopping in St. George in March to visit with Republican delegates and potential voters, he was asked about SB 54.
“The irony here is many people throughout the state know I am one of the strongest supporters of the caucus-convention system,” Reyes said at the time. “If the party sues the state, the one defending that (law) will be me.”
According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Kirk Jowers, one of the leaders of the Count My Vote initiative, said he believes the state will forcefully defend the law.
“We anticipate the state defending its law forcefully,” Jowers told the Salt Lake Tribune.
In addition to the lawsuit, SB 54 may face pressure from opposing legislation sponsored by Rep. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, in the legislative session.
Jenkins will sponsor a bill that will allow political parties to choose who will appear on primary ballots. Another proposed piece of legislation would amend the Utah Constitution to allow the parties to select their candidates in anyway they see fit, minus state interference.
The two bills would effectively gut the applicable portions of SB 54.
“That dings Count My Vote pretty hard,” Jenkins said, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
- Governor signs ‘Count My Vote’ compromise bill into law
- ‘Count My Vote’ bill passes state house, senate, heads to governor
- On the EDge: Count My Vote? Please
- Caucus, direct primary compromise bill passes committee
- Dixie Republican Forum discusses opposing Count My Vote ballot initiative
- Trust voters or know candidates? Count My Vote rallies politicians, groups on both sides
- Count My Vote hits St. George with supporters, opponents
- Former Utah governors to kick off ‘Count My Vote’ in St. George
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