Who decides who will be on the ballot in the next Republican primary election? With the 2016 elections right around the corner, party bosses and the state are still locked in battle, trying to figure that out.
The current law is seen as a compromise between the Utah Republican Party's convention-only system and the Count My Vote initiative drafted to create alternate routes by which candidates could appear on ballots. On Nov. 23, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer ruled that the Republican Party cannot be forced to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in their elections. However, candidates can still appear on the primary ballot through the signature-gathering process if those signatures are from registered Republican voters in that district.
Many thought Nuffer's ruling would be the end of the issue, but now the party has signaled that it may not allow Republican candidates on the primary ballot, even if they've collected enough signatures to do so, unless those candidates also receive at least 40 percent of the vote from the party's delegates at its convention.
A letter sent by the Lieutenant Governor's Office to State Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, argues that the law requires any party registered with the state as a Qualified Political Party (QPP) must allow candidates on the primary ballot who either have gathered enough signatures from Republicans in their districts or received at least 40 percent of the delegate vote at convention—or both. Under existing code, the letter reads, "a QPP must allow candidates to collect signatures. The Utah Republican Party will not be in compliance with the [code] if it does not allow a candidate to collect signatures."
In an email to his fellow Republican lawmakers, Weiler wrote that the party—at its Nov. 21 Central Committee meeting—may have been signaling it will not allow candidates to appear on primary ballots unless they have 40 percent of delegates' votes, even if they have gathered the requisite number of signatures.
However, not accepting "signature candidates" could prove to be a mistake. If the GOP did refuse to allow candidates going the signature route, it could lose its status as a QPP, says Mark Thomas, chief deputy to Utah's lieutenant governor and director of elections in Utah, "If a QPP doesn't follow the rules, then the default is a Registered Political Party [RPP]," he says. And if such a downgrade were to occur, every Republican candidate in the state who didn't collect signatures could find themselves removed from the ballot, because an RPP can accept only signature-gathering, not convention nominations.
"This is unprecedented," says Tim Chambless, a professor of political science at the University of Utah who is also affiliated with the U's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "This is really all about political power. The Republican Party chair, James Evans, doesn't want to lose power. He has the perception that the power should remain entirely within the party."
Both the Utah Republican Party and the Lieutenant Governor's Office have signaled that they want a new lawsuit to go before the Utah Supreme Court to settle the matter. But this now years-long dispute could be causing serious damage among average Utah voters.
"The reason [the Count My Vote initiative] had collected over 100,000 voter signatures is because there was a perception among a large number of Utahns that an injustice had been perpetrated," says Chambless, "and that due process had been violated." Specifically, Chambless points to the 2004 Utah Republican Party convention, when delegates removed Gov. Olene Walker; and 2010, when they did the same to U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett. Both candidates had been popular, with high approval ratings among rank-and-file voters.
"It was one thing to have the injustice occur once," says Chambless, "but then to also have a very popular senator go down without the voters getting a say prompted the [CMV] initiative process. And now, we see the Republican Party going to court against the law that was seen by most as a good compromise, and getting a favorable ruling from one judge. So there are several aspects to this plot ... and I think that the average voter is looking at the Republican Party nationally and seeing it in disarray.
"Then, they look here in Utah—supposedly the best-managed state in the nation—and see the Utah Republican Party involved in similar finger-pointing, and lawsuits, and division rather than unity," Chambless says. "So what does that do? It angers voters, and they could very well just end up not voting." CW