Is the Utah GOP Playing Games with SB 54?

Last week, Utah GOP chairman James Evans told the media that he won’t ask the Republican-controlled Legislature to make any changes to the primary ballot compromise law, SB54.

But Friday night Evans sent out a letter to his central committee members – with copies to House and Senate GOP leadership – which seems to ask for changes to SB54.

What’s up?

Evans says in his email that it appears to him (and his party attorneys) that SB54’s various deadlines political parties must meet in order to become a “certified party” fall along the political calendar in a manner that will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for county and state Republican parties to achieve “certification.”

By implication, that means it would help the Republican Party and its candidates if SB54’s various “party certification” deadlines were changed – and that would take legislative action.

And if party leaders don’t meet these deadlines, then GOP county, legislative, state and federal candidates in 2016 won’t be listed under the Republican Party’s ballot banners.

In effect, all those Republican candidates – most of them incumbents – could be on the ballot as independents, with not direct ties to the Republican Party.

Man, that would be a Utah Democrat’s perfect political dream.

Now, don’t get all hopped up and worried.

Proponents of SB54 — and its parent (if a reluctant parent), the Count My Vote citizen initiative petition of 2013-2014 — argue Evans is just playing games.

He’s trying to scare rank-and-file Republicans who may be feeling their party leaders are acting like obstructionists in filing a federal lawsuit against SB54.

CMV leader Rich McKeown said over the weekend in his own email: “The Republican Party has had, and will have, adequate time to comply with the provisions of SB54. The requirements are straightforward and compliance is not difficult.”

However, it must be said that Sen. Curt Bramble’s “eloquent” compromise in SB54 (as it was termed by some of Bramble’s supporters) does rely on a finely-tuned form of government regulation (Evans calls it “coercion”).

Most political/election experts agree that the real solution to getting more access to party primary ballots is for party leaders themselves to make needed “reforms.”

Various court cases, however, show that government can’t tell a political party how to pick its candidates. That’s up to the private political parties.

But other court cases say that government can control how candidates’ names are placed on primary ballots, especially if government pays for those primary elections (which in Utah cost taxpayers about $1.5 million annually).

Admittedly, SB54 is a bit confusing. You can read it here.

Basically, it says that if any political party (Republicans are especially affected since they hold most of the offices in Utah) wants to go the caucus/convention route and place candidates on the primary ballot, then the parties have to do certain things.

Through that process the party becomes “certified.”

And a “certified party” gets to put its ultimate nominees on the final general election ballot under the party banner.

If party leaders don’t follow the SB54 rules, then a Republican candidate that goes through the caucus/convention process, and is voted on by party delegates, would appear on the ballot not under the Republican banner, but as a political independent.

McKeown explains it this way: “ Non-compliance is a choice and the law contemplates such a decision by any political party. In such a situation, that political party would simply lose its capacity to nominate candidates through a party convention. 

“Since the Republican Party has fought hard to preserve that option in the law, it seems unlikely, in the end, the party will choose such a course. An inability to respond to this change in the state’s election laws could only be interpreted as poor leadership."

A candidate who went through the SB54 alternative route – getting on the primary ballot via collecting a certain number of party voter signatures – would appear under the party banner.

So, any legislative Republican with a brain – if the party failed to become “certified” – would gather voter signatures as a way of getting on the ballot as a Republican.

He would bypass the caucus/convention process where delegates vote on him – because even if he won the convention vote, he couldn’t be on the ballot as a Republican.

The result: The caucus/convention process would be a waste of time and delegates, in reality, either wouldn’t vote on candidates in election years, or would vote on candidates that had little chance of winning the election.

All this political/legal maze-walking in SB54 is aimed at getting party leaders to make internal changes to their bylaws and constitutions, resulting in SB54’s ultimate goal: Candidates for political offices at the county, state and federal level can pick two routes to an open party primary ballot.

1) They can take the traditional route of going before county or state conventions and be voted on by party delegates (if the party is “certified”).

2) They can gather the required number of party voter signatures in their district and, if they get those numbers, go directly to their party primary ballot and may bypass the caucus/convention process completely.

(The candidates could also decide to do both at the same time, but would run the risk of being embarrassed if they finished well down the pack in convention voting. If they also got the required number of signatures, they’d be on the party primary ballot anyway and couldn’t be eliminated in the party delegate convention vote.)

So, one day Evans says he wants nothing from the 2015 Legislature concerning SB54, and several days later says if SB54 isn’t changed by the Legislature, then GOP candidates could be victimized come 2016.

In any case, a week ago Evans filed a federal lawsuit against SB54 claiming it is unconstitutional. And in a subsequent press conference he wondered why legislators and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert wouldn’t welcome such a clarifying court ruling.

McKeown, saying CMV legal opinions say the bifurcated candidate nominating system is perfectly legal, responded: “While the (Republican) party is legally entitled to make a case in court, it has become evident that such action will continue to erode the confidence of important Republican constituencies.”