Utah GOP Skirts Around New Election Law to Protect Party-Backed Candidates

On August 15, delegates from the Utah Republican Party gathered to vote on measures ranging from how candidates compete for the party’s nomination to who can be rightfully considered a party member.

The changes adopted within Utah’s GOP could affect whether candidates not backed by the state’s dominant party will be able to compete for elected office.

In Utah, the parties operate using the caucus and convention system (CCS). Caucus goers select delegates to represent them at nominating conventions and these delegates collectively nominate candidates for office.

This system was nearly replaced in 2014, when the organization Count My Vote (CMV) gathered enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot that, if approved, would have replaced the CCS with open direct primaries.

CMV rested on several arguments to justify the reform. It argued that the caucus and convention system, unlike direct primaries, is more exclusive and caucus-goers and delegates tend to be more mobilized and ideologically extreme than the average Utah GOP member.

For instance, in 2010, the state convention nominated stalwart conservative Mike Lee for U.S. senator ahead of the more moderate Republican, Robert Bennett, because he had the support of the majority of the convention’s delegates.

Count My Vote also noted that per election cycle, the state pays nearly $3 million for party primaries and thus all voters, including unaffiliated ones, have a right to participate in these taxpayer-funded elections.

Many Utahns prefer the CCS to direct primaries. They cite numerous benefits, including the relevance it affords to rural areas, its emphasis on principles rather than personality, its encouragement of a deep understanding of policy issues and of active participation in party affairs, and the accountability that arises from the close contact between residents and neighborhood representatives.

To save the CCS, Republicans in the legislature negotiated and passed SB54. This law preserves the CCS, but it also provides another pathway for candidates to win a party’s nomination. If they gather enough signatures within their district – or, for statewide races, across the state – they can compete with the candidate nominated at the convention in an intraparty primary contest.

While Republicans in the legislature supported this compromise, the Utah Republican Party leadership – headed by Chairman James Evansvowed to challenge SB54 in court.

Initially, Evans’ problem with SB54 was twofold. First, he argued that SB54 violated the party’s “freedom of association,” since it allows unaffiliated voters to cast a ballot in a party’s primary. Second, he argued that the party did not have enough time to comply with the statute, which took effect on January 1, 2015.

The Democratic and Libertarian parties agreed to abide by SB54, while the Republican and Constitution parties pledged to oppose it.

The latter parties were dealt a blow in April 2015, when U.S. District JudgeDavid Nuffer rejected a request for an injunction.

Judge Nuffer argued that the state Republican Party had not made enough of an effort to comply with SB54, dismissing the party’s claims it could not be implemented in time. However, Judge Nuffer was sympathetic to arguments about the freedom of association, which could be settled at a future trial.

Following this ruling, the nearly 180 members of the Utah Republican Party’s Central Committee gathered in May to determine how to respond. The Central Committee decided to adjust its bylaws to comply with SB54 and to proceed as a Qualified Political Party (QPP). As a QPP, the Utah Republican Party agreed to keep both pathways open: to continue using the CCS and to allow candidates who gather enough signatures to compete in a party primary.

The Central Committee also agreed to Proposal #1 (the so-called “litmus test amendment”), which relates to party membership – that is, who can call himself or herself a true member of the Utah Republican Party. Observers note that the party could use a litmus test to deny party membership to any candidate who contests the nomination through the petition route deemed not loyal enough to the party’s ideals.

The party has debated other ways to keep such candidates off the primary ballot. Chairman Evans suggested having petition-route candidates pay $10,000 to defray the cost to the party of interviewing the candidate and informing members of the candidate’s views on the party’s platform and principles. This idea was not popular among fellow party members.

Though the Central Committee drafted and agreed to these proposals in the spring, it had to wait until the summer for the state’s party delegates to ratify them.

At the Utah GOP convention on August 15, the delegates voted to approve Proposal #1, but it is unclear how the party will use its new powers and whether it will try to keep petition-route candidates off primary ballots.

The delegates also approved Proposal #4, which stipulates that any candidate who receives 60 percent or more approval among delegates at a nominating convention will earn a spot on the general election ballot.

In short, while the Republican Party is formally cooperating with SB54, it is seeking to minimize the chance that petition-route candidates will force primary contests with convention-nominated candidates while also looking to have the law declared unconstitutional.

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About Andrew Gripp

Andrew Gripp received a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Delaware and an M.A. from Georgetown University, specializing in Democracy and Governance. His interests include U.S. and international politics, moral and political philosophy, science and religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @andrewgripp.
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