Imagine this year’s ballot with no Utah candidates listed as Republicans.
Or, alternatively, the ballot listing only those Republicans who gathered signatures, while others who went through the GOP convention are shut out.
Republicans say those scenarios are a growing possibility now that the Legislature failed to pass a bill designed to fix problems caused by a recent bylaw change adopted by the Republican State Central Committee.
The fix-it bill, HB485, passed the House. It was on the Senate calendar awaiting action Thursday night when the Legislature adjourned as required at midnight — so it died.
Now, “I think there’s certainly a cloud over this election,” Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, sponsor of the bill, said Friday.
The questions swirling in the wake of HB485’s demise include which, if any, Republicans eventually may appear on the ballot, whether the party may be listed at all — or whether GOP hopefuls might be forced to run as unaffiliated candidates.
The turmoil stems from a recent party rule change forced through by hard-liners on the GOP State Central Committee that would kick out of the party candidates who gather signatures to qualify for the ballot in some races. Signature gathering, they argue, decreases the power of state delegates and infringes on the right of the party to choose its own nominees
The problem is that the GOP last November filed to operate this election cycle as a “qualified political party,” which under state law means it would have to allow candidates to gather signatures, use the caucus-convention system, or both.
“It’s clear they [Central Committee members] made an effort to break the law with their bylaw change,” McKell said, which could lead to lawsuits to revoke the GOP’s qualified political party status. That, in turn, could decertify the party, or lead it to be declared a “registered political party,” which under law allows only those candidates who gather signatures to appear on the ballot.
McKell’s bill sought to solve problems by making clear that once a party files as a qualified political party, the party has no power to change midstream in an election cycle.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, Senate sponsor of the fix-it bill, said many of his colleagues lost interest in it after its narrow passage in the House, 40-31. Had it achieved 50 votes, it could have become effective immediately — instead of in May.
Bramble said immediate implementation was important to provide clarity as people begin filing their candidate declarations.
Candidates must decide whether they go though the caucus-convention system, gather signatures or both. And without HB471, Bramble said, it remains murky whether the party actually has power to kick out those who gather signatures.
If the party tries to enforce its new rule by ousting signature-gathering candidates, McKell said, it could trigger punishment by the state.
The Utah Democratic Party, among others, says the GOP has already done enough to be stripped of its qualified political party status and is calling on Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, to enforce that and, perhaps, decertify the party.
The office of Cox — the state’s top election official — said on Friday that he stands by his previous statement: that he plans to certify all GOP candidates regardless of whether they gather signatures or go through convention.
“However,” he said, “assuming this issue becomes subject to litigation, there is no guarantee on potential outcomes.”
Cox warned that the new party bylaw “puts every Republican candidate at risk, as a judge could revoke the party’s qualified political party status.”
Alex Cragun, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, said Friday that Cox “cannot pick and choose which laws he can enforce,” and should now move to strip the GOP of its qualified political party status. “They can choose whether to violate the law, but they have to face the consequences.”
Cragun said Democrats are finding it easier to recruit candidates this year with “the Republicans ready to shoot themselves in the foot,” and he and other party officials tell potential candidates “you might not have an opponent in November.”
Phill Wright, former state Republican Party vice chairman, is among the hard-liners who pushed through the party rule change. He said he expects the GOP to follow it. “You don’t pass rules that you don’t expect to enforce.”
Hard-liners contend the state has been unconstitutionally interfering with the party’s right to choose nominees as it wishes. The rule change, they argue, helps it exercise that right and may trigger more legal action to defend it, beyond the pending appeal the party has before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Friday marked the first day for candidates to file for office, and McKell said his phone had been ringing all morning from GOP hopefuls trying to figure out if it was safe to seek office only through the caucus-convention route — or whether that could end up keeping them off the ballot.
McKell urged them to gather signatures, whether or not they plan to go through the caucus-convention system.
“That’s the safest route,” he said of signature gathering. “I’ve heard the lieutenant governor [who is McKell’s brother-in-law] recommend that as well: to gather signatures and go through caucus-convention.”