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Gehrke: GOP’s plan to charge delegates $20 harkens back to days of poll taxes

First Published      Last Updated Jun 02 2017 08:21 pm

When Republican delegates from the 3rd Congressional District gather in a few weeks to whittle down the field for a candidate to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz, they will, for the first time, have to pay a $20 registration fee to get into the event.

Newly elected Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson said he has been forced to impose one here because the party finances are in such a shambles that the party bounced about $30,000 in checks for the recent convention where Anderson ousted former two-term Chairman James Evans.

"Almost every other state in the nation does it and I talked to the [Republican National Committee] and they can't believe we aren't doing it," Anderson said. "We need to be more self-sufficient and we're not."




Anderson said some states charge as much as $300 to attend the convention, and the least expensive he has found was $75. So he doesn't see a $20 registration as particularly onerous.

And maybe it's not. But it could put the party on some perilous legal footing. That's because the entire notion of the convention is that it is an indirect election, where delegates chosen at caucuses attend and vote for party nominees.

These people represent their neighbors and friends through a process that is laid out clearly in state law as part of a process to elect their representatives in the Legislature or, in this case, in Congress.

Americans have a centurylong history of poll taxes being used to disenfranchise certain people, mainly blacks but also the poor. It survived until 1966, when the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, banning all forms of poll taxes in elections.

While the Republican convention is not a direct election, per se, it is hard to see how charging a registration fee to delegates who want to exercise their statutory duty representing their neighbors would not directly run counter to the spirit of the amendment, if not the statutory and constitutional language.

You wouldn't get away with charging a state legislator, for example, a registration fee to attend the legislative session as a representative of his or her constituents. And what if charging a fee deters even a small handful of the 1,000 3rd District delegates from attending? That would effectively deprive scores, if not hundreds, of Republicans from having a voice in choosing the party's preferred nominee.

One could argue those residents will still get their say in the primary. But only one of the 15 Republican candidates will survive the convention and go to the Aug. 15 primary — where they will go up against whichever GOP candidates successfully collect 7,000 signatures to get on the ballot.

There are ethical considerations, as well: What is to stop a candidate from covering the registration for his or her supporters?

Anderson, as you might expect, disagrees with my negative assessment of his novel concept.

"It's not a poll tax. This is not a general election. This is something people do," he said, adding that it is a concept that has been "batted around" as long as he's been involved in politics. "I think it's important that people understand the reasoning."

The party is, as I reported before the convention, in tatters. Anderson said the company that provided audio-video services for the recent GOP state convention is struggling to make payroll because the party's check bounced and there's no more money to pay them.

Anderson said he has asked donors to help out since he was elected but, so far, is still coming up short.

"I see this as a hard decision, an unwanted decision, but a necessary decision," Anderson said. "I was elected on fiscal responsibility, transparency and accountability. I'm accountable for this, and don't think I haven't lost sleep over this."

There's nothing in the party's constitution or bylaws that allows delegates to be charged to attend or vote in a party convention. Anderson is making this up on the fly, and we'll see how it flies with delegates and candidates starting Thursday, when he plans to notify attendees of the new surcharge.

Evans, Anderson's predecessor, considered a "recommended" contribution for delegates of $50 each, either money they raised or donated themselves, but nobody would be turned away if they didn't come up with the donation. Anderson, likewise, said he doesn't anticipate any delegate will be shut out if they don't have the $20.

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