Utah GOP Continuing the Battle Over SB54

UTGOP Logo 02Wow, does Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans like to twist up the insides of SB54 and state election folks.

Of course, Evans says he’s just trying to protect his party and fight against what he says are unconstitutional provisions of the new candidate nomination route law – which has yet to decide any candidate’s future.

After a federal court hearing this week, Evans met with the media and said under his interpretation of SB54 no GOP candidate can take the petition-gathering route to his party’s primary.

That would violate party bylaws, says Evans, kicking the petition candidate out of party membership.

“We didn’t write this law,” Evans told UtahPolicy on Wednesday.

He admits that if legislative drafting attorneys had it to do over again, they probably would have written SB54 tighter.

But, citing the relevant code sections, Evans says it is clear to him and the party attorneys that SB54 ALLOWS a “qualified political party” to pick “either or” several candidate routes – and the parties current bylaws only allow the delegate/convention route.

If a candidate takes SB54’s petition route, that violates party membership rules, and that candidate is out of the party, says Evans.

It then follows that person couldn’t be listed under the GOP banner on the ballot in any election – primary or general.

Problem is, says Mark Thomas, state elections officer, SB54 SPECIFICALLY says that a candidate under a “qualified political party” can take the signature route to the primary ballot, go through the traditional delegate/convention route, or take both courses at the same time.

“The (state Republican Party) has sent us an official letter saying for the 2016 cycle declaring they will be a qualified political party,” Thomas tells UtahPolicy.

“So, that is how we (in the state Elections Office) are proceeding,” said Thomas.

Evans responds that Thomas and the state Elections Office may be in a tough place – but it’s a place SB54 puts them.

Now, at a later date, if the state GOP tells some petition-gathering candidate they can’t be a Republican candidate – as Evans declares – then, said Thomas, he is not sure how to proceed.

For now, said Thomas, he will meet with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (his boss) and state attorneys to decide what, if anything, the Elections Office should do.

“I would think a candidate (seeking the petition route) would have a legal route” to take – i.e. sue the state GOP.

But that would take time, money, and immediately put GOP voters off – for they would be asked in a primary election to vote for a guy who is suing their own party.

Thomas says if Evans proceeds in this manner, the Elections Office could sue the party, as well. But he’s not saying now he’d do that.

“It is a fair question,” said Thomas, when UtahPolicy asked if his office would step in certify a petition-GOP-candidate to the party primary if the party declares that person not to be a Republican.

But he said he doesn’t have an answer now.

Oddly enough, come 2016 it could be that Evan’s new interpretation of SB54 is never really challenged at all.

Most sitting GOP officeholders I’ve talked to – like Herbert – say they will take both the petition-gathering route and the convention/delegate route at the same time.

Evans says the only way to get on the GOP primary ballot is through the convention delegates.

So, let’s say Herbert takes that route – and his announced challenger Jonathan Johnson also takes that dual route – and neither wins 60 percent of the convention delegate vote, and both go on to the primary.

There would be no reason for either man to sue the party – they are on the GOP primary ballot.

And let’s say most GOP legislators also take the dual route – and they, likewise, make the Republican primary ballot via their convention delegate vote (or win their party’s nomination in convention).

They wouldn’t need to sue, either.

This leads Thomas to question whether his office should just sue the state GOP to get this settled – although that decision has not been made.

“We have to administer the law as best we can,” said Thomas.

“The candidates deserve some certainty and clarity. A lot of money will be spent gathering signatures; time spent.

“But I don’t know the answer right now.”

Ironically, Evans’ continued battle against SB54 could actually push MORE candidates into the signature-gathering route – along with the convention route.

Here’s why: Under SB54 now, a signature-gatherer candidate will start his election process by filing Jan. 4. But a candidate who wants ONLY to go through the convention doesn’t declare until early March – after the 2016 Legislature ends.

But a sitting GOP legislator puts himself at risk by only going the convention route – for he may not know who is running against him within the party until it is too late for him to start his petition gathering.

To be safe, it makes sense for a GOP incumbent lawmaker to run both via petition and via convention – that way if two strong intra-party challengers file against him in March – and he runs the risk of finishing third in convention and being out of office – he would still have the petition route to at least get on the GOP primary ballot.

Herbert told his monthly KUED press conference he doesn’t see the need now to call a November or December special legislative session to deal with candidate filing deadlines in SB54.

Well, he may be looking to change his mind after what Evans declared this week.

“We have no opinion on whether the governor should call a special session” on SB54, says Evans. “That is his decision.”

The Legislature convenes Jan. 25, too late to deal with petition candidate filing deadlines in 2016.

One of the options discussed in a recent closed House GOP caucus dealt with special session SB54 items, including moving all candidate filing deadlines up to Jan. 4 in 2016 – so all candidates know who has filed against them at the same time.