The State Republican Party will soon file a court case against SB54, the compromise law passed by the 2014 Legislature that allows an alternative route by political party candidates to the primary ballot.
State GOP Chairman James Evans told UtahPolicy on Monday that the lawsuit should be filed within a few weeks.
Yet to be determined is whether it will be filed in federal or state court, Evans said. He said his party’s governing Central Committee had vote twice to pursue the lawsuit.
SB54 basically says any statewide candidate who gets 28,000 voter signatures, any congressional candidate who gets 7,000 signatures, any state Senate candidate who gets 2,000 signatures, any state House candidate who gets 1,000 signatures, or any county candidate who gets 3 percent of his district’s registered voters’ signatures, automatically goes on his party’s primary ballot.
While a candidate could still go to his party’s political convention and, doing well there among delegates, could move to the primary ballot, it doesn’t REQUIRE that convention route, as current party rules do.
GOP leaders have been considering this lawsuit for some time, and first talked about it even before the Legislature reached the SB54 compromise.
In return for SB54, the citizen initiative group Count My Vote, which was well on its way to getting on the November 2014 ballot a proposed law that would allow any candidate who gathered a set number of registered voter signatures to go on his party’s primary ballot, stopped its effort.
Primary elections, which cost statewide around $1.5 million, are paid for by state government.
And CMV leaders argued that since the state was paying for the elections, it could set the parameters for who gets on the ballot. Forty-three other states have ballot access via voter signatures now.
In Monday’s Salt Lake Tribune, CMV leader Kirk Jowers wrote in an op-ed about “back-room” attempts to change SB54 or just repeal it in the 2015 Legislature. You can read the op-ed here.
Jowers writes he’d heard that there could be lawsuits, too.
Evans laughs at that statement, saying that recently Rich McKeown, another CMV leader, called him (Evans) and asked if a lawsuit was coming. “I told him “yes,” and now we see the Tribune piece,” said Evans.
Evans says the lawsuit should decide whether a “private organization, like our political party,” has the right to decide how its nominees are selected, and that the state should have no say in the matter.
The fact that the state pays for the primaries is irrelevant, said Evans.
The state gives tax breaks to religious organizations, should that mean the state can tell the organization how it picks its leaders?
The state allows a nonprofit like the Days of ’47 Parade to use its roads, but the state can’t tell the group who can march in the parade, added Evans.
The same principle applies here, said Evans. The fact that the state “has a nickel” in a deal doesn’t mean the state can control it, he said.
However, CMV advocates have argued for a long time that various court rulings say a state can determine, by law, which candidates get on the primary ballot, which the state controls and pays for.
The timing of the lawsuit could also be questioned, coming as it does just weeks before the 2015 Legislature convenes.
Its anticipated that any number of bills could be filed aimed at changing SB54 or repealing it.
“There are at least five bills (already filed) that would change SB54 or repeal it. It is intolerable for any (political party) to have changing laws telling us how to pick our nominees. It is unworkable.”
“It is our belief that the Legislature doesn’t have the authority to tell us this” in any way, Evans added.
There is a split – perhaps a growing split – among what some call “mainstream” Republicans and the party’s hard right wing over this issue.
The mainsteamers believe that archconservative delegates force the Utah Republican Party to take extreme views, including opposing tax hikes for public education, while more moderate views in the Legislature and governor’s office are excluded because incumbents fear right-wing delegates who can drive them from office.
Evans himself recognized the financial implications of such a split when, last year, he started a special effort to get rank-and-file Republicans to contribute financially to the state party, offsetting, if need be, routine large donations from rich party stalwarts who had signed on to Count My Vote.
Several of those stalwarts, including former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt and businesswoman Gail Miller, gave $25,000 a pop to the CMV PIC.
Evans told UtahPolicy that, as state chairman, he has assessed each county party special dues to pay for the coming lawsuit.
There are two payment deadlines, one this November and one next February. The county parties, which generally oppose SB54 and CMV, are assessed based on their population and GOP strength, said Evans.
The Salt Lake County GOP, for example, is supposed to pay between $7,000 and $10,000, and has made its first payment, said Evans.
A private law firm will represent the Utah GOP, he added.
In his op-ed, Jowers says he’s had it confirmed that – because SB54 is standing law – GOP Attorney General Sean Reyes and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert will support SB54 and the state will vigorously defend it in court.
Meanwhile, CMV leaders say if SB54 is drastically changed or repealed, they will, once again, start a citizen initiative drive like their previous effort, with an eye to getting their proposed law on the 2016 ballot for voter approval.
CMV raised more than $1 million before, and any number of legislators and political leaders opined that CMV would have gotten their initiative on the 2014 ballot if the SB54 compromise had not ended that effort.
Evans said a number of Republican legislators support the party’s lawsuit, saying they, among many others, want “constitutional clarity” that a court decision will bring.
It is unlikely that a court, federal or state, will decide the issue before lawmakers adjourn their 2015 general session in mid-March.
And a state court decision could well be appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, which would take even longer to render a decision.Thus the question: Will the GOP-controlled Legislature act on SB54 this coming session?
Like the same-sex marriage situation in the 2014 Legislature, GOP leaders could just decide not to take any action on SB54 with a court case pending.
However, if votes on SB54 amendments or repeals are called for, it could be close – with the edge now leaning towards the new law.
A UtahPolicy comparison shows that after the 2014 elections earlier this month, 16 GOP senators return for the 2015 session who voted for the SB54 compromise. Two Democratic senators return. A Senate majority is 15 votes, so unless some senators who voted for SB54 last year switch, it could not be repealed or amended.
In the House, 30 GOP representatives who voted for SB54 are back. Eight Democrats who voted for it are back, as well.
A majority in the House is 38 votes. So unless votes there switch, a major change to or repeal of SB54 won’t pass there, either.
But Evans says he’s not asking for major amendments or repeal, for that supposes that state government could act in the first place on telling the state Republican Party how to pick its nominees.
“And the state can’t do that, we believe.”