Some Utah GOP Concerns About SB 54 Are Off Base

Ever since leaders of the Utah Republican Party a month ago began saying that SB54, the grand compromise election reform bill of the 2014 Legislature, was hopelessly flawed and must be changed, postponed or repealed in the upcoming general session, interested parties have been trying to figure out exactly what are the problems with the new law.

Now State Elections Office chief Mark Thomas, after conferring again with his legal advisors in the Attorney General's Office, has clarified for UtahPolicy some of the concerns.

Thomas, chief election officer for the state and chief deputy for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, will release later specific questions and answers concerning SB54, he told UtahPolicy.

The FAQs on the election web site will be an easy-to-understand guide for political parties, citizens and candidates on how SB54 works, he said.

But for now, Thomas says that one of the major concerns of GOP state leaders has been clarified, at least as far as his office is concerned.

GOP state chairman James Evans, in several telephone calls with UtahPolicy and with public statements, has said that unless SB54 is changed in the 2015 Legislature GOP candidates in 2016 will NOT be able to listed on primary and/or general election ballots under the Utah Republican Party banner or logos.

If true, of course this would be a disaster for the GOP, since their party candidates’ names would either not be on the ballot at all, or would be listed under no party banner, thus greatly harming their chances of winning.

But Thomas tells UtahPolicy that such a worry is not founded in fact, even though Evans has told Thomas the same thing and has repeated it in the media.

Admittedly, SB54 is a long, complicated bill.

As with many statutes, sections of SB54 refer to, and depend upon, other sections of law – some of those sections included in SB54, some not, but in other parts of the state election code.

Lawyers are trained to follow this maze of section referrals; for laymen it can be very confusing.

Thomas says the key language effecting Evans’ concerns are in lines 1134 to 1163 in SB54.

Thomas says after consulting with assistant AGs assigned to his office that one thing is clear: All the State Republican Party has to do – and this is the SAME requirement it has had for years – is to file a certified letter with the Utah Elections Office declaring that the Utah Republican Party will have candidates on the 2016 primary and general ballots.

That letter ALONE guarantees the dully certified GOP candidates will appear on the June 2016 primary ballot and the winners in that primary will appear on the November 2016 general election ballot under the Republican Party banner, said Thomas.

In several telephone calls to UtahPolicy, Evans maintained that mistakes or omissions were made in SB54, leaving the state GOP, or any other party for that matter, in real danger of failing to certify itself as a “registered party” under the new law.

And if one couldn’t become a “registered party,” then it followed that that party couldn’t get its candidates listed on a primary or general election ballot under its party banner or logo.

Key to this argument, says Thomas, is Evans’ belief that the state GOP couldn’t meet various deadlines in 2015/2016 to make changes to its bylaws and constitution to meet SB54 requirements.

But, says Thomas, whether the state GOP meets those internal deadlines or not, that doesn’t matter to the State Elections Office.

All that matters to them is that GOP leaders file a certified letter saying the Utah Republican Party will be a “registered political party” by the November 2015 deadline.

“All we want is the letter. That’s it,” Thomas told UtahPolicy.

He adds that the Utah Republican Party – and the Utah Democratic Party and other political parties – have filed such letters every two years, and those letters trigger the parties’ participation in the next general election cycle.

True, SB54 changes the date that such a letter must be filed with the State Elections Office. But that’s all, says Thomas.

(There are a whole bunch of new requirements in SB54 – sticks, as opposed to carrots, if you will – to encourage political party leaders to become a “qualified political party” – a different designation that gives the parties the option of keeping their current caucus/convention candidate nomination process. But those requirements DON’T affect a party’s ability to be a “registered political party” and get their candidates’ names on the ballots, Thomas says.)

Under the old law, that certified letter-filing deadline was March 1 of the general election year – in this case March 1, 2016.

SB54 moves that certified political party filing letter deadline up to November 15 of the previous year – or Nov. 15, 2015.

Evans says because of internal bylaws and constitutional requirements – mainly the timing of county and state delegate conventions where delegates would have to change the internal bylaws and constitutions – the state GOP can’t change their bylaws and constitution by Nov. 15, 2015.

Thus, says Evans, since they can’t make the changes, they can’t file to be a “registered party” by that deadline. It then follows they can’t get their candidates on the 2016 primary and general election ballot under their party banner.

Nope, says Thomas. “We don’t care” about any internal rules that should or shouldn’t be changed under SB54. All the State Elections Office wants to see is the certified letter.

Get that to them by Nov. 15 of this year and Republican candidates can be on the 2016 ballots under the GOP banners.

Aside from that issue, Evans also believes SB54 is unconstitutional on several grounds.

Last month the state GOP filed a federal lawsuit seeking an unconstitutional ruling.

Supporters of SB54 – mainly the Count My Vote citizen initiative backers – say they have a strong legal position showing that SB54 is constitutional.

That court fight will proceed.

Thomas says unless there is a court order restraining or striking down SB54, his office will go ahead with the law as passed a year ago.

And if GOP leaders get him that certified letter by Nov. 15, Republicans will be on the 2016 ballots under their party banners.

If Evans doesn’t file such a letter by Nov. 15, GOP candidates WILL NOT be on the ballots under their party banner.

And that is where it stands as the 2015 Legislature comes into session in two weeks.

 And state GOP bosses will be asking their majority party legislators to make changes to SB54 this session or repeal it all together.