Rules for special election to replace Chaffetz set, but lawsuits loom

And off we go!

With haste, but planning, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and the state’s top election officer, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, started the special election process Friday to replace U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, of the 3rd Congressional District.

Chaffetz said Thursday he’s officially resigning June 30.

By 1 p.m. candidates were lining up outside of Cox’s Capitol Election Office to pay $285 and officially sign up to either gather 7,000 voter signatures, or face their 3rd District delegates (about 1,000 GOP delegates), or both, to get on the ballot.

Big dates for voters to remember:

— Aug. 15, primary election day for 3rd District voters (and primary day in Utah’s cities and towns, as well).

— Nov. 7, Election Day in the 3rd District (and in cities and towns, as well).

You can see the whole new special election calendar here.

Candidates who are running in a political party must sign up by next Friday, May 26, by 5 p.m.

And there likely won’t be a shortage of them, especially in the Utah Republican Party, as open seats in the U.S. Senate and House don’t come around very often.

And the 3rd District, seen here, is historically one of the most Republican districts in the nation – with the ultimate GOP nominee after Aug. 15 very likely to win the seat in November.

Cox told reporters in the Capitol’s ornate Gold Room “running elections is what we do, and we’re very good at it.”

That may be, but there are still some political clouds over this special election, as various GOP legislative leaders are threatening to sue Herbert and Cox over the governor’s refusal to call a special legislative session to let lawmakers say how the election will be run.

If such a suit is filed, it will go directly to the Utah Supreme Court – with both Herbert and Cox believing they are on firm legal ground.

The schedule outlined by Cox and his state election office director, Mark Thomas, is tight. And certainly, there is little time for a legal hold up if scores of deadlines can be met to make the Aug. 15primary and Nov. 7 final election.

House and Senate Republicans want GOP 3rd District delegates to pick their party’s nominee, not necessarily primary voters. (Already in the Utah Republican Party, primaries are “closed,” and only registered Republican voters can cast a ballot.)

GOP legislators say that not only does state law say they will set the time and manner of elections, but that most other vacancy-filling processes give the power to party bosses – through appointment by the governor. And this U.S. House vacancy should be no different.

But Cox, quoting a recent UtahPolicy Dan Jones & Associates poll, said it is clear the vast majority of Utahns want voters to have the say in picking party nominees, and Chaffetz’s replacement.

And, anyway, the U.S. Constitution and state law say Herbert shall call the election. And that’s what they are doing.

One of the GOP legislators’ complaints is that while Herbert says he is following SB54’s dual-route by a candidate to a primary law as best he can, the scheduled laid out Friday would allow a signature-gathering candidates to be still collecting signatures AFTER their party’s delegates have voted on candidates.

That may be, admitted Cox. But a party’s convention call is up to party leaders.

 If they set up a 3rd District delegate convention between June 12 (the last day for signature candidates to turn in their petitions) and June 19 (the last day to hold a party convention of delegates), then the delegates will know which candidates may be on the ballot via signatures.

That timing is critical politically.

For several House Republicans have told UtahPolicy that if Herbert’s special election timeline allows signature candidates to be still collecting signatures AFTER a delegate convention has voted on its candidates, then that is a clear violation of the SB54 compromise.

And if the governor violates that now-shaky compromise, then House and Senate Republicans won’t feel bound by the SB54 dual-route law any longer – leading the way for its repeal in the 2018 Legislature.

But Cox said if a political party holds its 3rd District delegate convention before the June 12 signature-gathering deadline, then that is up to the party bosses – not the governor.

And, thus, neither Herbert nor he would be violating any previous commitments.

In any case, with Friday’s special election declaration, a signature-gathering candidate will only have 17 days to get 7,000 signatures from citizens registered to vote in their party.

There are a lot of Republicans in the 3rd District – Chaffetz got 210,000 votes last November.

But if candidates don’t want to risk being eliminated by 3rd District state delegates, they have to get going now to collect enough voter signatures to ensure they make their party’s Aug. 15 primary election.