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Gehrke: Herbert is right to not let Chaffetz’s replacement turn into a political game

First Published      Last Updated May 02 2017 11:09 pm

You can't take politics out of politics, as we're witnessing in the maneuvering over how to pick a likely replacement to Rep. Jason Chaffetz.

The congressman is widely expected to resign from office, possibly within a few weeks, and Gov. Gary Herbert is getting intense pressure from legislative leaders and party officials to call a special session to create a process for filling the vacancy.

So far, the governor hasn't budged and has warned that lawmakers who have their eye on the congressional seat — and there are plenty of them — could use a special legislative session to game the system.




There is some merit to having the special session. Most fundamentally, the Legislature should make the laws and set the rules for an election. As it stands, the statute is vague.

While most elected officials in Utah are replaced by party delegates, the U.S. Constitution says House members have to be replaced through a special election. State law says the governor must call that election, but doesn't elaborate beyond that.

Having the Legislature and governor cooperatively lay down more specific rules would be nice. It would eliminate gray areas and could reduce the threat of litigation ­— already, the progressive group Alliance for a Better Utah has threatened to sue if the rules aren't clarified.

But at the end of the day, Herbert is also right that a special session is unnecessary.

We know what elections look like: Since the passage of SB54, candidates can go before the party delegates or gather signatures to get on the primary ballot. The winners of the party primaries advance to a general election, where the ultimate winner is decided.

And more likely than not, a special session would, at best, just muddy the waters, and at worst could disenfranchise tens of thousands of 3rd District voters.

The reason is that there is no agreement between the House and Senate on how a special election should be conducted.

During the legislative session earlier this year, lawmakers — prompted by the possibility that Rep. Chris Stewart could be appointed to lead the Air Force (he wasn't) — tried to work out the specifics of how he would be replaced.

The Senate unanimously supported holding a full election cycle, including the convention, the signature gathering, the primaries and the general election.

House members, because of their lingering bad blood toward SB54 and the signature-gathering path to the ballot, overwhelmingly voted to give power to the party and let the delegates decide whom the nominee should be.

Unable to break the impasse, the bill died and the law remains vague.

While the House proposal would streamline the process and shorten the vacancy, it would also invest tremendous power in the hands of several hundred of the most strident partisans.

On the Republican side, a thousand delegates would decide the party's nominee. The ultimate winner would need, at most, just 501 votes.

Because the 3rd District is the 16th most conservative in the country, with the GOP holding a 25-point advantage, those 501 delegates would in essence choose who represents some 750,000 Utahns in Congress.

Poll after poll has shown the Republican delegates are far outside of Utah's mainstream. They are, as a whole, stridently conservative, overwhelmingly male and almost universally white.

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