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The Utah Republican Party made a series of changes to the organization's constitution and bylaws Saturday, averting the possibility that nominees from the state's dominant political party would not be on the 2016 election ballot.
In 2014, the Republican-dominated Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert passed SB54, a response to an initiative by the group Count My Vote organized by former Gov. Mike Leavitt and other influential Utahns that aimed to do away with parties' convention nominating process and replace it with direct primaries.
The result in SB54 was a hybrid process, where candidates could seek to get on the primary ballot by going through the traditional convention system, in which delegates choose the nominee, or by gathering enough signatures to force a primary.
The Republican Party went to court, seeking to have the law struck down, arguing the Legislature was taking away its ability to choose which candidates will represent the party a refrain that continued Saturday.
"Our concern has been all along … that anyone who runs as a Republican on the ballot should at the very least be a Republican. Is that too much to ask?" Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans told delegates Saturday. "The ultimate goal is to have SB54 declared unconstitutional. … There's been a great deal of pressure for the party to drop the lawsuit and I have said, 'Well, no. We're not.' "
While the lawsuit continues, Evans told delegates they have to comply with the changes for now if the party wants to be able to put Republican candidates, including U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, Gov. Gary Herbert, and the state's congressional delegation, on the 2016 ballot.
Evans had said in a sworn declaration in the party's court case challenging SB54 that it would be impossible for the party to make the necessary changes to its governing documents before a deadline next month.
But after U.S. District Judge David Nuffer rejected the party's initial attempt to block implementation of the law, GOP officials pushed through the technical changes to comply with SB54, gaining final approval from a substantial majority of the delegates.
The most notable and contentious change requires Republican candidates to comply with the party's constitution and bylaws.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, argued that the language requiring people to comply with party rules is too open-ended and could have prevented Ronald Reagan from switching parties and getting elected in California, had a similar provision existed there. It also gives party officials too much control and could lead to candidate purity tests.
"Guess what, the voters and not the party [can] decide who is a Republican, and that's the way it should be," Weiler argued. "This leads to a litmus test and worthiness interviews. and it's a step down the wrong direction for our party."
Neil Walter, a delegate and former congressional candidate, who wrote the proposal, said it doesn't do any such thing.
"Some of the detractors argued this would be used to divide the party or exclude individuals. Nothing could be further from the truth," he said.
Delegates also re-elected Evans to another two-year term as GOP chairman, and elected Davis County GOP Chairman Phill Wright whom Evans opposed as the state vice chairman. Bryce Christensen, a senior at the University of Utah, was elected party secretary and Abram Young as the party treasurer.