Judge overrules state election leaders, orders new Utah party and candidate to be included on special election ballot

Jim Bennett, son of former Sen. Bob Bennett, will appear on November ballot<br>

A federal judge ordered Utah election officials on Wednesday to include the new United Utah Party and its candidate Jim Bennett on the ballot in the November special election to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz.

“The state’s interests do not require or justify effectively barring UUP and its candidate, Mr. Bennett, from participating in the special election as a new political party,” U.S. District Court Judge David Nuffer wrote in an order released Wednesday.

The office of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox initially had refused to allow Bennett on the ballot because the UUP had not qualified as an official party before the filing deadline for candidates — but the party finally met the last of those qualifications earlier this week.

Bennett’s lawyer argued in a hearing last month that the state simply did not envision the need to allow a new party on the ballot when it came up with an expedited election schedule — which meant the UUP would have had to read minds in order to start its formation months before Chaffetz resigned in order to qualify.

“If what one has to do to get on the ballot is be a soothsayer, that’s a pretty high burden,” said attorney Bryan Sells.

Nuffer agreed in his order on Wednesday.

He said Bennett’s attorneys came up with a schedule that demonstrated the state could have allowed formation of a new party “and still use the municipal primary and general election dates” included in the shortened time frame for the special election.

The judge added, “Though they were rebuffed in their early attempts to form a party and designate a candidate, the plaintiffs have demonstrated compliance with reasonable expectations.”

Nuffer also said that the lieutenant governor’s office had the power to certify the new party and Bennett more quickly than it actually did — if it had chosen to do so.

“The election office was not required to take 30 days to review the UUP petition. But it did, even though the work could have been completed in two days,” Nuffer wrote.

Also, the judge ruled that because Bennett is the unopposed nominee of the UUP, Utah law does not require it to participate in the Aug. 15 primary election. “Without the need for a primary election, UUP is ready to participate in the special general election,” he wrote.

Nuffer added that his order is in the public interest because it “serves to provide another option to voters in the special election. Failure to issue an injunction would deny voters an important choice.”

Bennett, a son of the late three-term Sen. Bob Bennett and a registered Republican prior to Donald Trump’s presidential run, cheered the order on Wednesday.

“We knew this was right from the very beginning when I originally attempted to file, but unfortunately we’ve had to fight to prove what the state was doing was unconstitutional,” Bennett said. “I took on the establishment and won, and I’m going to go on and do the same thing in Washington, D.C.”

United Utah Party Chairman Richard Davis expressed relief at the decision. “The state has attempted to stifle competition by providing no means for a new party to be on the ballot in the special election, and then seeking to block us from participating once we did form. Fortunately, Judge Nuffer saw through that effort.”

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Jim Bennett, center, is helping to organize a new centrist party of disaffected Republicans and Democrats called the Utah United Party. Organizers as well as several former GOP and Democratic leaders announced the new party during a press conference in the Centennial Room at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Monday May 22, 2017.

Cox, the state’s top election officer who was sued by the new party, issued a statement saying, “While we may not agree with the judge‘s ruling, we do not intend to appeal his decision.”

Cox added, “The actions of my office were consistent with existing Utah statutes and with the sole interest of running an orderly election based on the law. It is unprecedented to place a political party candidate on the ballot before the political party is certified, and without a court order we could not make special exceptions for one candidate.”

While Bennett has said he felt Republican leaders were trying to keep him and the new party off the ballot for political reasons, Cox said his actions were never “intended to disfavor them in any way.”

Bennett has been campaigning while his candidacy was in limbo — including appearing in parades and at community events. But he said fundraising was difficult when he was unsure if he would be on the ballot.

“Many voters who don’t feel they belong either on the left or the right will discover that I am closer to representing their views than any other option out there,” Bennett said Wednesday. “It’s just so happens I’m not a Republican or a Democrat — I’m a Uniter.”