ST. GEORGE – A new bylaw adopted by a part of the Utah GOP’s State Central Committee over the weekend that would expel candidates for gathering signatures is causing major heartburn for other party members. Specifically, the question of whether the bylaw is legal understate election law. Some fear it will jeopardize the party’s ability to have its candidates on the ballot.
The new bylaw initially targets potential Republican candidates running in 2018 for in Utah’s 1st and 2nd congressional districts. Those districts are held by Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart, respectively, and neither has declared an intent to gather signatures.
The bylaw has no effect on Mitt Romney, who is running for U.S. Senate as a Republican. Romney, who seeks to replace the retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, has declared his intent to gather signatures as well as go through the caucus-convention system.
When asked about the new bylaw while visiting the Utah Legislature Tuesday, Romney told reporters he wasn’t all that worried about it and would leave the question of how candidates receive party nominations to the party leaders.
“I believe I will be on the ballot. I’m not terribly concerned about that,” he said.
Currently under state law, political candidates for county, state and federal offices can get their names on a primary ballot either through collecting a set number of signatures or by going through their party’s caucus-convention system. Candidates can also take both paths to the ballots simultaneously.
The law took affect in 2015 and was the result of compromise legislation that paused the Count My Vote ballot initiative that sought to do away with the state’s long-standing caucus-convention system and replace it with a direct primary.
Popularly known by its original bill designation of “SB54,” the election law was challenged by the Utah GOP and resulted in a lawsuit that has made its way to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Despite the legal challenge it has waged against the law, the Utah Republican Party has nonetheless gone along it and registered as a qualified political party so its own candidates can continue to appear on the election ballot.
According to the Deseret News, about 80 of the Utah GOP’s 180-member State Central Committee gathered for a weekend meeting, with fewer than that there to vote on the new party rule.
While some members of the committee support the bylaw, like Phil Wright, others, like GOP chairman Rob Anderson, worry it will cause problems for the party.
“If someone just gathers signatures and goes around those delegates, they can’t be vetted. There’s no way for the party to protect its integrity,” Wright told Fox 13 News. “We’re not looking for candidates who want to run as Republicans. We’re looking for Republicans who want to run as our candidates.”
Candidates who go through the delegate-vetting process will ultimately receive the state party’s nomination and blessing. Republicans who get on a primary ballot through signatures won’t necessarily have that support.
Anderson told Fox 13 News the new bylaw “encourages litigation and jeopardizes our candidates and gives us some bad media attention.”
He wants to see the question of the state law’s legality answered by the court and not potentially impacted by the new bylaw he says violates state and federal election law.
Though he was unable to attend the central committee meeting Saturday, Washington County Republican Party chairman Jimi Kestin said he has been in contact with party leadership and expressed similar misgiving over the new rule.
“This is a bylaw that puts the party at odds with state law and has the power to disqualify the party,” he said.
Though a staunch supporter of the caucus-convention system himself, he said he doesn’t believe this was the best way to go about dealing with the party’s ongoing issues with the SB54 law.
“I believe this was a misguided approach,” he said
Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, is looking at drafting legislation addressing the controversy, Fox 13 News reported Tuesday.
“The State Central Committee violated state law, they violated federal law, they violated the 14th amendment of the Constitution,” McKell said, adding he wants legislation in place in case the Legislature needs to step in.
“There’s a lot of people concerned that the Republican Party could lose its status as a political party,” he said.
While many Utah Republicans worry about their party’s future, the Alliance for a Better Utah, a group calling for “transparency and accountability” in Utah government, is calling on the Lt. Governor’s Office to rescind the Utah GOP’s qualified party status if it doesn’t repeal the new bylaw.
“Given the involvement of the Utah GOP in litigation over SB54, the party is clearly well aware of the legality of the issue,” said Josh Kanter, Better Utah founder and board chairman. “As much as the central committee members who passed this bylaw might want to revert to the caucus system as the sole route to the ballot, the reality is that state law tells all political parties that they must also allow candidates to access the ballot by gathering signatures. If the Utah GOP does not immediately repeal this bylaw change, it appears that the lieutenant governor has no choice but to decertify the party.”
For its part, the lieutenant governor’s office, which oversees elections and election law in the state, is watching the Utah Republican Party closely, Fox 13 News reports.
“We have likely created more problems than we have solved with what we created Saturday,” Kestin said.
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