Republican lawmakers advanced a plan Monday that aims to ensure that their party and all its candidates will remain on the primary ballot this year — saying that has been threatened by a GOP civil war fomented by ultraconservatives.
The House Business and Labor Committee voted 9-3 to advance HB485, and sent it to the full House.
It would essentially force the party to ignore a rules change pushed through by conservative members of the Republican State Central Committee last month.
The rule change seeks to kick out of the party any candidate who attempts to qualify for the primary ballot in some races by gathering signatures, instead of using the caucus-convention system.
HB485’s sponsor, Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said the rule violates state law — and could lead to the party being decertified and banned from the ballot, or reclassified in a way that only signature-gathering candidates could qualify.
The Republican Party last fall said that it would operate as a “qualified political party” this year, allowing candidates to get into the primary by collecting signatures, going through the caucus-convention system, or both.
“This bill says you made an election in November, and you can’t change it. You can’t changes the rules because candidates across the state have relied on that,” McKell said.
Without HB485, McKell warned, a chance exists the party could be decertified and disappear from the ballot, with members forced to run as unaffiliated candidates.
Party hard-liners argued the state is unlawfully infringing on the right of the party to change rules and decide how its nominees are chosen.
“We believe this bylaw is valid,” said Phill Wright, a central committee member and former state party vice chairman, who voted for the change. “We also believe it’s ridiculous that the state would consider creating retroactive legislation that once again determines how a party advances its candidates to the ballot.”
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said a suggestion by Wright and others to let the rule play out would be like a “ticking time bomb” that might prevent the party and its candidates from appearing on the ballot.
March 2: Legislation proposes to solve ballot havoc caused by GOP by forcing party to act like it never changed its rules
Mainstream Republicans are proposing an unusual way to reverse action by GOP hard-liners that would disqualify candidates who gather signatures on the ballot: legislation that would essentially force the party to behave as though the previous move had never happened.
Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, after consultation with legislative leaders and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, introduced HB485 on Friday to essentially ignore the party’s recent bylaw change.
“What we are saying is you can’t change the rules once the election has already started,” McKell said, referring to last week’s vote by conservative members of the Republican State Central Committee to disqualify candidates in some races from collecting signatures to get on the ballot.
“We’re simply saying, ‘Party, you made an election in November and that’s what we’re going to recognize: those rules.’”
McKell said he expects lawsuits on the issue, perhaps from several sides.
“It is very clear that the State Central Committee was attempting to get sued when they passed an illegal law,” he said. “I think litigation was imminent if we acted or not.”
His bill is being criticized both by hard-liners and by at least one group that argues the Republican Party should be punished for acting in violation of state election laws.
Don Guymon, a central committee member who supports punishing signature collectors, said McKell’s bill “infringes on free speech even more, and gives the party no power over its membership.” He said hard-liners are reviewing the bill and discussing what to do. “There’s a lot of concerns we have.”
Josh Kanter, chairman of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, issued a statement criticizing the McKell bill.
“Stepping in with a solution that suggests we pretend nothing happened is a tactic for children, not state leaders,” Kanter said. “Utahns’ trust in our Legislature and the majority party will only continue to erode with legislative gamesmanship like this, thus decreasing overall trust in our state government while increasing constituent frustration.”