Tribune editorial: The SB54 war is over, and Utah voters won

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The Utah Republican Party’s quixotic war against democracy is over, even if some Utah Republicans are slow to admit it.

The U.S. Supreme Court Monday declined to hear the party’s appeal of a lawsuit challenging Senate Bill 54, the Utah law that allows candidates to petition to get their names on primary election ballots without going through party conventions. Since the law was first passed in 2014, the Utah GOP has challenged its legality in court and lost at every level.

The fight literally bankrupted the party, but the forces behind the lawsuit promise they aren’t giving up. They say they will turn back to the Utah Legislature to see if they can undo it. That is unlikely, given that the law is more popular now than it was when it was first passed by that same legislature.

In Utah, there has never been a question of the GOP’s continued dominance. It was only a matter of whose party it would be. The irony is that the delegate/convention system was supposed to be a bulwark against populist extremism. Instead, it’s the delegates that fed the extremism.

On issues like immigration, health care and even public education, the delegates have repeatedly found themselves outside the Utah mainstream. No better example exists than last year’s election in the 3rd Congressional District. Chris Herrod, the conservative hard-liner, crushed the more moderate John Curtis at the Republican convention, only to see Curtis crush Herrod when rank-and-file Republicans voted in the primary. (Another example? Even Mitt Romney finished second at last year’s convention.)

The Utah GOP’s “Constitutional Defense Committee” said the court’s decision imperils “the rights of assembly and speech of all private expressive associations,” including “political parties, labor unions, private colleges and universities, religious organizations and many others. There is far more at stake here than just the future of Utah’s SB54.”

No. The Supreme Court declined this case because of one undeniable fact: The state of Utah runs state elections, including primaries. If the party came up with its own, independent system for choosing candidates that didn’t involve state-run primaries, the state would have no role. Labor unions, private colleges, religious organizations already know this, and they don’t rely on the state for their elections.

Now courts at all levels have made clear that voters don’t have to bend to the party. It’s the party that must bend to the voters. That is good news for Utahns of all political stripes.