In 2016, Aaron Heineman wanted to be a state delegate for the Utah Republican Party so he could weigh in on that year’s presidential election.
He arrived at his local caucus with a speech, carefully tailored to fit into two minutes while being relayed through an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. But, he said, his party didn’t provide the interpreter it promised.
Heineman struggled to get through half his speech, delivered through an attendee who had “rudimentary” ASL skills, before being cut off halfway through. The caucus did not choose Heineman to be a delegate.
Heineman had registered for the event more than a month earlier and had worked to prepare. He was passionate about a presidential candidate and wanted to be a part of the process, but due to a lack of accommodation, the experience left him feeling marginalized.
As a result, Heineman is suing the party, a former Utah GOP chairman and the lieutenant governor.
Joining him as a plaintiff is Eliza McIntosh Stauffer, who is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair. She says the state party didn’t accommodate her during the GOP state convention in 2016.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court for Utah, seeks changes to the party’s policies to be in line with the landmark 1990 anti-discrimination Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It also requests an amount of money to be determined at trial. It lists as defendants Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and his office, former Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans, former Utah County Republican Party Chairman Craig Frank, and the state and county parties.
Cox, reached by text message Saturday, declined to comment on the lawsuit because he hadn’t yet seen it. He added that it was “strange” his office was included in the lawsuit because it has nothing to do with conventions.
The lieutenant governor is the state chief elections officer.
Jared Allebest, the lawyer representing Heineman and Stauffer, said if the party holds a private event, it would not have to accommodate anyone’s disability. But once it holds a convention or caucus for elective office, he said, the party becomes an “arm of the state” and is required to follow ADA regulations.
Heineman started preparing for his local caucus in Utah County on Feb. 18, 2016. He called Interwest Interpreting Agency through a video relay service that assists the deaf in communicating over the phone.
Heineman planned to pay for the interpreting service himself, which would cost $165 for two hours, but an employee told him that the party was required to provide the service.
In March 2016, Heineman reached out to the state and county parties, which assured him they were working to secure an interpreter.
But Heineman arrived at the caucus to find no certified interpreter. Heineman, however, found another attendee with some proficiency in ASL, and this man offered to help interpret Heineman’s speech. But because of the man’s lack of fluency in the language, the speech took longer than Heineman had planned and he was cut off.
He also had difficulty voting. Without a proper translator, he did not know what was going on.
“Mr. Heineman’s unfortunate experience at the caucus substantially impaired his ability to engage in political speech and participate in the political process,” the lawsuit states.
After the local caucus, Heineman wrote a letter to the party on the state and county levels, asking for “reasonable accommodation” via a certified interpreter during the upcoming state convention. When he arrived, he found that his request had not been granted.
Stauffer’s situation is different, but she also alleges lack of empathy and consideration in the treatment she said she received from the state GOP at the 2016 convention.
When she arrived on April 23, 2016, to perform her duties as a delegate, she found that there was no wheelchair-seating area. Other attendees noticed and helped her find a spot.
During a vote, then-Chairman Evans insisted that delegates stand to be counted.
Stauffer could not stand. She and others objected to the voting method, but Evans insisted, the lawsuit states, and “shut the matter down” before more delegates could weigh in. Stauffer did not get to vote.
Evans told The Salt Lake Tribune on Saturday that he was following convention rules when he called for the standing vote, and added that the party changed the rules at the recent convention to be more accommodating to those who can’t stand to vote.
“If this lawsuit will make us a better organization, then I welcome it, and some of the things, from my understanding, have already been addressed in our rules now,” Evans said, “and I would hope there would be continued dialogue so that everyone that wants to participate in our convention and our caucuses is able to.”
Stauffer attempted to talk with Evans after the 2016 convention, the lawsuit states. She even organized a protest outside the state Republican headquarters in Salt Lake City a few days later with 60 people, but Evans still refused to speak with her.
Evans said he didn’t speak with Stauffer that day because he wanted attorneys present at the meeting and that wasn’t possible without notice.
Allebest said the lawsuit is not an attack on the Republican Party. (He is active in the political process, he says, and is president of the Salt Lake County Young Republicans.) But such discriminatory treatment occurs far too often and across the political spectrum, he said.
Heineman and Stauffer “are passionate about the political process because they don’t want to be shut out,” Allebest said. “They want to participate in what America is about.”
Rob Anderson, current state GOP chairman, said he can’t speak to what happened under his predecessors, but in the past year, he has “bent over backwards” to accommodate everyone, including hiring interpreters and making sure there are no standing votes.
“I don’t want a single person to feel disenfranchised,” he said.
Paighten Harkins contributed to this report.