One single vote could imperil every Republican candidate on Utah’s ballot in 2020.
On Saturday, Utah Republicans narrowly failed to repeal a party rule that could violate Utah election law, leaving the future of GOP candidates in limbo. The party’s State Central Committee needed 91 votes to repeal a controversial bylaw that strips party membership from candidates who seek to gain a spot on the ballot through the signature-gathering process. 90 Central Committee members voted for repeal.
Republican party sources tell UtahPolicy.com that leaders thought they had enough votes to repeal the bylaw going into Saturday’s meeting, but Sen. Mike Lee stood up during the meeting and gave an impassioned speech against the dual-path nominating mechanism. That was likely just enough to turn the tide against repeal and now leaves the Utah Republican Party in limbo. Lee’s stance is surprising as he previously expressed support for the dual-path nominating mechanism. However, Lee voted in favor of repealing the conflicting bylaw.
Conn Carrol, a spokesperson for Sen. Lee, took exception to reports that Lee tipped the balance against repealing the bylaw.
“It is unfortunate that some Republicans want to run to the media with false and incomplete stories instead of taking responsibility and solving this problem,” said Carroll in an email statement. “The reality is that Sen. Lee was one of the 90 votes to repeal bylaw 8. While Sen. Lee has never been supportive of the dual-path nominating process, he has been compliant with the policy as long as it is still operative law. The best path forward is for the legislature to repeal SB 54, a solution that never solved any problem but has only created new ones.”
If the bylaw is enforced, then the Utah GOP would no longer be considered a Qualified Political Party under state election law. To be a QPP, a party must allow candidates to either gather signatures, use the traditional convention system, or both. If the Utah GOP enforces the bylaw and bans signature-gathering candidates, under state law they would lose QPP status and only be considered a Registered Political Party (RPP). RPP’s cannot use the caucus/convention system to nominate candidates and can only offer the signature route to the ballot.
Earlier this year, the Utah GOP certified to the state that they would be a QPP during the 2020 election, meaning candidates seeking the Republican nomination have both paths available to them. When the bylaw in question was originally passed in 2018, former party chairman Rob Anderson refused to submit the regulation to the state elections office, in effect nullifying it. Anderson was censured by the GOP Central Committee for his refusal.
When the bylaw was originally passed by a group of hardliners on the party’s central committee, it only pertained to candidates in Utah’s 1st and 2rd Congressional District. It was meant to give anti-signature activists within the party grounds to file another lawsuit seeking to invalidate SB54, the 2014 legislative compromise that created Utah’s dual-path nominating system. However, that strategy is a dual-edged sword for Republicans. If the GOP were to kick signature candidates out of the party, it would almost certainly lead to a legal challenge that could end with the Utah GOP being decertified as a QPP, and forcing all Republican candidates to run as independents next year. As you might imagine, Democrats and many third-parties would have a better chance of winning elections in Utah in 2020 if there were no Republicans on the ballot.
During the original brouhaha resulting from the illegal bylaw, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox made it clear his office would ignore any attempts to decertify the Utah GOP’s status as a QPP. That might be more difficult this time around. With the illegal bylaw still in place, a lawsuit to challenge the Utah GOP’s place on the ballot is a distinct possibility as the state controls the ballot, not the party. If those challenges are successful, it could lead to every Republican being forced to run without a party affiliation next to their name next year.
It’s not clear how the state elections office would handle a challenge to the Utah GOP’s ballot access. Some say the party would revert to an RPP, meaning that the only path to the primary ballot for Republicans would be through signature gathering. Others say there’s a high likelihood that the whole party would be disqualified and lose ballot access altogether. That could result in no Republican nominees for President, Congress, Governor, legislature and other seats next year.
Earlier this year, the Alliance for a Better Utah sent a letter to the elections office challenging whether the Utah GOP could act as a QPP next year because of the offending bylaw. The elections office said the issue is moot until the party takes specific action to enforce the rule and strip a candidate of party membership.
No one is sure how the party could, or if they even would kick a signature-gathering candidate out of the organization. Some party insiders tell UtahPolicy.com that there’s no official mechanism for doing that in place. However, the bylaw in question says a candidate who attempts to secure a spot on the ballot by the signature path “will automatically forfeit their Party membership.”
It’s also unlikely that the Utah Republican Party would take steps to enforce the bylaw, as just under ⅔ of the party’s central committee supported the repeal measure on Saturday. Party insiders tell UtahPolicy.com the plan is to continue with the status quo, moving forward as a QPP and allowing candidates to avail themselves of both paths to the primary ballot.
The Utah House passed a repeal of SB54 on the final night of the 2018 legislative session, but the measure died as the Senate refused to consider the bill. In last year’s session, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, dropped his effort to repeal the dual-path system after determining there was no appetite for repeal among his fellow lawmakers.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court refused to hear the Utah GOP’s lawsuit challenging SB54 and the signature-gathering path to the ballot.