ST. GEORGE – While infighting between Utah GOP officials continues over recently passed bylaws that would revoke the party membership of candidates who gather signatures to reach the ballot, the Lt. Governor’s Office has chosen to ignore the rule outright.
“I’m getting a lot of calls from candidates who are nervous and wondering what’s going to happen,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox told St. George News Tuesday.
Cox’s office oversees elections and election law in Utah and has reviewed the new bylaw passed by the Utah GOP’s State Central Committee that’s causing much heartburn in some party members.
Two weeks ago a group within the central committee passed the bylaw that, if enforceable, revokes a candidate’s party membership if they seek a path to the ballot that involves gathering signatures. Under the bylaw passed, membership revocation would be temporary, however, as the candidate could reapply for party membership following the election.
The bylaw, however, conflicts with Utah law, by the lieutenant governor’s analysis; it also apparently conflicts with other rules of order and laws.
“Under the law, a qualified political party must allow candidates a dual path to the ballot,” Cox said.
Utah’s current election law, often referred to by its originating 2014 Senate bill designation SB 54, allows a candidate to get on the ballot by gathering a required set of signatures corresponding to the office they seek. It also allows candidates to get on the ballot through Utah’s long-standing caucus-convention system whereby candidates are vetted by delegates who then vote to determine the party’s official nominee.
A legal challenge to the SB 54 law is currently before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, pending hearing.
In the wake of this new bylaw’s adoption, the party leadership has not been happy.
Utah Republican Party Chair Rob Anderson, along with Vice Chair Joni Crane and Treasurer
Abram Young, issued a jointly-signed letter Tuesday speaking against the bylaw. They wrote in part:
As you will recall, two weeks ago, pursuant to a hastily called Special State Central Committee meeting, a small subset (26 percent of the SCC, or 48 of the 717,771 registered Utah Republicans) voted for a bylaw change that, if implemented, would not only violate the UTGOP Constitution, but would also violate Utah State Law, and potentially two areas of the United States Constitution.
The letter goes on to proclaim the bylaw “null and void” under guidelines set in Robert’s Rules of Order. Robert’s provides that should any order passed by a body conflict with the U.S. Constitution or the overall party’s or state’s constitution or bylaws, it has no authority.
“‘No rule that conflicts with a rule of a higher order is of any authority,’” the letter stated.
Anderson and the others wrote that the Utah Republican Party has had thorough legal review of and consultations about the new bylaw with the state’s legislative, Attorney General’s and elections offices.
So what more does the election’s office, overseen by Cox, have to say on the matter?
After some legal review of their own, the office has chosen to ignore the new bylaw. Why? Because it is a rule that was passed too late to have any impact on the current election season.
In order to be a qualified political party – meaning the party’s candidates will be on the ballot – a party must submit its proposed certification to the Lieutenant Governor’s Office in the fall. His office makes those certifications sometime in October to early-November, Cox said. The certifications help the elections office know what rules the parties are following during the election and they are legally binding.
“For now, changes made after the fact just don’t apply to this election,” Cox said. “We believe a judge would uphold that position.”
For the many candidates who have chosen to take the signature-gathering route this year, Cox said, their ability to declare their intent to gather signatures with the elections office started in January.
“There are candidates, many candidates … who rely on those rules (and) have already started conducting their campaigns.”
Many in political and media circles originally thought the new bylaw would potentially impact candidates like Senate-hopeful Mitt Romney who is gathering signatures and going through the caucus-convention system. However, for this election cycle, the bylaw would only affect those Republican candidates running in the state’s 1st and 2nd congressional districts – provided it wasn’t going to be ignored, that is.
The seat for the 2nd Congressional District, of which Washington County is a part, is currently held by Republican Rep. Chris Stewart. Among his challengers is St. George resident and self-described Republican activist Mary Burkett. Burkett has chosen both the signature and convention routes to the ballot.
“If I forfeit my membership in the party, so be it,” Burkett said, adding she is tired of the Utah GOP’s infighting.
“I’m just done with that part of it,” she said. “I personally am sick of the vitriol and the ugliness. The party needs to sit down and work it out.”
The bylaw that would disqualify Burkett is supported by Phill Wright, a member of the state central committee and former vice chair of the Utah Republican Party.
“SB54 provides a path where a candidate, in my opinion, who probably is to the fringe of our platform can go around our party, around our delegates, claim the mantle of Republican, but never be vetted by our party,” Wright said in an interview with The Hill. “The danger in that is there’s no way for the Republican Party to have any integrity in our election process, because anyone could claim to be a Republican.”
While the Utah Democratic Party has called for the Lt. Governor to revoke the Utah GOP’s qualified political party status, Cox said he can’t.
“There’s nothing in the law that would allow us to do that,” he said.
So for the time being, despite a bylaw that is said to be in violation of the law, the Utah Republican Party remains a qualified party and the recent signature-gathering bylaw itself is considered moot, or at least unenforceable, by the elections office.
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