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Utah Republican Party leaders voted unanimously in an emergency meeting Wednesday evening to support delaying until 2018 a new method for nominating candidates that would provide a way around the existing party caucus and convention system.
Party Chairman James Evans has said repeatedly that the party doesn't have time to comply with the requirements of SB54, passed last legislative session as part of a compromise to avert a ballot drive by Count My Vote. If the GOP-dominated Legislature doesn't postpone the law until 2018, Evans said, Republican candidates may not be on the 2016 ballot.
The state elections office has said that's not the case and that all the state needs is a letter from the party saying they plan to participate in the 2016 election.
But the resolution by the Utah Republican's Executive Committee Wednesday raises the stakes in the showdown between the GOP and the Legislature.
"We have sadly realized that based on SB54's aggressive time lines, it may be impossible to conform to the requirements of the law before the prescribed deadlines," Evans said in a statement. "Delaying implementation of the law until the 2018 election cycle is the most prudent course of action as it allows political parties to adjust to the new changes and removes uncertainty for candidates regarding the ground rules for the 2016 election cycle."
Under the SB54 compromise struck last session, candidates can go through a party's convention and try to win the nomination by gaining support from delegates chosen at neighborhood caucuses. Alternatively, they can gather a requisite number of signatures from eligible voters to secure a spot on the primary ballot.
As part of the deal, Count My Vote, a group of prominent Utah business and political leaders, including former Gov. Mike Leavitt and Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group, agreed to drop an effort to put the signature-gathering path to the primary off the ballot. They had already gathered more than 115,000 signatures to put an initiative before voters.
Rich McKeown, one of the co-chairs of Count My Vote, said he believes no change is necessary, and Evans and the party should quit dragging their feet.
"The simple requirement is that the parties write or present evidence to the lieutenant governor of their intention to register as a designated party," McKeown said. "It's a simple process that's been done regularly. It makes no sense for the party not to do this. … They ought to do this, they ought to file and create certainty for their candidates."
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who runs the state elections office and has been sued by the party in an attempt to block SB54, said changes don't need to be made.
"The governor signed SB54, supported that compromise, continues to support that compromise," Cox said Thursday. "SB54 should remain in place. It's not impossible for the party to comply with the deadlines. We think it can be done. We realize it is difficult … but we encourage them to move forward."