Appeals court affirms SB 54 elections law, rules against Utah GOP

Compiled image | Image by NiroDesign, iStock / Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – Hours before the members of the Republican Party go to their neighborhood caucus meetings Tuesday night, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals shot down the party’s lawsuit against Utah’s Count My Vote election law.

In this file photo, voting gets underway at thhe 2016 Washington County Republican nominating convention, Hurricane, Utah, April 16, 2016 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The lawsuit was brought against what is also known as SB 54, since it was launched in 2014 following Gov. Gary Herbert’s signing of 2014’s Senate Bill 54 into law.

The SB 54 law allows candidates to gather signatures as a way to get on a political party’s primary ballot as an alternative to the caucus-convention process. Within the caucus-convention system, candidates are vetted by delegates and chosen as the party’s official nominee accordingly.

Supporters of the SB 54 law have said the delegates tend to pick far-right candidates, while supporters of the caucus-convention system say it keeps candidates accountable to the people as that is who the delegates are intended to represent.

Backers of the caucus-convention system have argued the SB 54 law violates the U.S.  Constitution and that the party has the right to pick its candidates in the manner it sees fit.

The three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit said the SB 54 law:

… strikes an appropriate balance between protecting the interests of the state in managing elections and allowing the URP (Utah Republican Party) and all other political associations and individuals across Utah to express their preferences and values in a democratic fashion and to form associations as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Not only does this balance not offend our Constitution, it is at its very essence.

Chief Judge Timothy Tymkovich offered the dissenting argument. In it, he wrote: “Senate Bill 54 attempts to change the substance of the Utah Republican Party under the guise of the state’s authority to regulate electoral procedure,” adding the state’s intended purpose for the law was to change the party’s message and favor more moderate nominees.

The chief judge further wrote that the state’s justification for passing SB 54 was “vague and even impermissible” and that no “evidence of corruption or fraud” within the caucus-convention system had been alleged by the state on the matter.

Still, Tymkovich agreed with the overall opinion that allowing candidates to gather signatures is not unconstitutional.

Rob Anderson, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, released a statement late Monday afternoon in which he acknowledged the court’s ruling and said it is a time for Utah Republicans to heal and work together rather than be divided.

Anderson’s statement follows in part below:

Today’s 10th Circuit decision comes after much unrest and divisiveness within the Utah Republican Party. Nearly a year ago, I was elected upon the promise of restoring fiscal responsibility and Party unity.

Through the tireless work of your Party’s officers, and the generosity of many donors, the Party is now fiscally sound! I follow the counsel of today’s opinion and “open the door to the roughly 600,000 people across the state of Utah” who are registered Republicans and invite them to take an active role in the Utah Republican Party, commencing with tonight’s caucuses and continuing through the upcoming primaries and into November’s general elections.

Remember who we are. There is strength in unity. Let us tear down that which separates and weakens us. “A house divided, cannot stand.” It’s time for Utah Republicans to heal, and to work together. Let us choose a better way, and let’s begin today.

The Utah Democratic Party officials said they were pleased with the court’s decision.

The Utah Democratic Party is pleased to see that the 10th Circuit has upheld SB54, just as several prior district court opinions have,” the party’s statement reads. “We are still evaluating the impact of this opinion on the Utah Republican Party continued flaunting of SB54 in the face of so many opinions upholding the Constitutionality of the law.”

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling against the Utah GOP’s lawsuit is the second time a federal court has shot down the Utah GOP’s lawsuit. The federal district court in Utah delivered a favorable ruling for SB 54 in April 2016. Around the same time, the Utah Supreme Court also affirmed the new election law.

It remains to be seen if the Utah GOP will drop its lawsuit or if those in the party pushing to see the SB 54 election law wiped away will prevail in  continuing the legal fight.

In this 2014 file photo, former Utah House Speaker David Clark speaks at a Count My Vote petition signing event held at the Best Western Abbey Inn, St. George, Utah, Jan. 13, 2014 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The SB 54 law is also known as the Count My Vote compromise law. Count My Vote was originally a ballot initiative that sought to due away with the caucus-convention system in favor of a direct primary.

As the ballot initiative closed in on getting the 113,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot for that year, Utah legislators compromised with the group behind the initiative to create then SB 54, which preserved the caucus-convention system while also allowing the signature path to the ballot.

Read more: Governor signs ‘Count My Vote’ compromise bill into law

The move has divided the Utah Republican Party since with the launch of the lawsuit and repeated unsuccessful attempts in the Utah Legislature to change or repeal the election law.

The legal fight against SB 54 was also reported to have put the Utah GOP into debt by $360,000. This amount made up the majority of the party’s estimated 420,000-plus debt at the time.

Read more: Utah GOP will continue legal challenge to Count My Vote initiative

Because of this, party chair Rob Anderson had moved to drop the lawsuit, yet he was subsequently overruled by the party’s state central committee.

Since then Provo-based Entrata CEO and software developer Dave Bateman offered to pay the party’s SB 54 debt.

Read more: Utah GOP’s ‘Count My Vote’ lawsuit debt wiped clean thanks to Provo software developer

Members of the Utah Republican Party’s State Central Committee recently passed a bylaw that would disqualify party candidates who seek signatures rather than go through the party’s sanctioned caucus-convention system – a bylaw the state’s elections office, under the purview of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, has stated it will ignore outright.

Read more: Lt. Governor’s Office will ignore Utah GOP’s new bylaw against candidate signature-gathering

Anderson has also decried the bylaw as violating party rules and state law.

Backers of Count My Vote, including former Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt, have been pushing for changes since 2010, when three-term U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted at the GOP convention amid the tea party movement.

Count My Vote proponents argue that it’s difficult for many people to participate in the convention system and that it leaves a sliver of the party’s faithful picking more extreme candidates without broad support.

Utah’s U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican, has at times been included in examples Count My Vote proponents name as more extreme candidates.

In both a special election last year to replace Republican Jason Chaffetz as one of Utah’s representatives in Congress and a 2016 gubernatorial election, GOP delegates picked candidates who were later trounced in GOP primaries by more moderate candidates.

Ed. note: This story was updated to include Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson’s statement.

Resources

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

 

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3 Comments

  • Lastdays March 20, 2018 at 5:10 pm

    This effort has been in the works ever since Bob Bennett got ousted by the Utah Caucus groups years ago and lost his career job as a Senator.
    This decision will come in handy for Mitt when he doesn’t make the caucus vote. Then he will be all over Utah trying to get signatures to be on the ballot anyways.
    Bad decision by courts on this one.

    • Bender March 20, 2018 at 7:36 pm

      Bad decision only if you believe a self selected collection of a few pious “church ladies” hell bent on extreme tests of purity should decide who represents the rest of us.

  • PlanetU March 20, 2018 at 8:20 pm

    Much needed in this state that is too republican/conservative. I used to be a republican in CA and here for some time but changed my party affiliation because it was TOO conservative. Need to have some diversity!

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