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A clash between the head of Utah's Republican Party and Republican elections officials over who can seek the party's nomination for office appears likely to end up back in court if the Legislature doesn't settle the matter in a special session first.
Utah GOP Chairman James Evans contends that party officials have figured out a way to only allow its candidates to be nominated through party conventions essentially gutting sweeping elections reforms the Legislature enacted in 2014 that allowed candidates to skip conventions and gather signatures on petitions if they want to seek office.
But Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and the top elections officials in his office disagree. They argue that Evans and the GOP agreed in an August letter to the state to comply with SB54, and that includes allowing candidates to seek the party's nomination through the signature-gathering route.
"[The law] clearly says it will allow a member to decide the route, not the party to decide, but the member to decide. That's how we interpret it and that's how we understand the intent from the Legislature," said state elections director Mark Thomas. "Notwithstanding all the crazy stuff, with James [Evans] saying it was gutted, to us, we are moving forward as we always have."
That likely sets the stage for another court battle between the party and the state either a candidate who gathers signatures suing the state if he or she is denied a spot on the primary ballot, or the party suing the state if the candidate gets on the ballot.
That comes fresh on the heels of a ruling by a federal judge that the state cannot force the party to let unaffiliated voters cast ballots in the Republican primary.
That assumes, however, that Republican Gov. Gary Herbert and the GOP-dominated Legislature don't address the problem first.
Some lawmakers have suggested a special session to make the Legislature's intent crystal clear and to make other minor fixes to parts of SB54. Herbert's spokesman, Jon Cox, said the governor plans to talk to legislative leaders and the attorney general before deciding if he will call a special session.
"The governor isn't pushing a special session on Senate Bill 54, but if legislative leaders would like to see that happen, he's open to it," Cox said. "That conversation needs to take place with them."
Those conversations could come as early as Thursday.
House Speaker Greg Hughes said he would like to see the Legislature stay out of the fray. Lawmakers passed SB54 as the result of a compromise with Count My Vote a group of prominent Utah politicos that had pushed for an initiative to do away with party conventions and replace them with primary elections.
Hughes said he wants to make sure the Legislature abides by that agreement.
"If the party has its rules and wants to seek judicial clarity, as it has already done, and wants to challenge provisions, or the state wants to challenge provisions, let them. I think judicial clarity is the only way we're going to get to the bottom of it. I'm ready to stand by the bill that we drafted and passed," Hughes said.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said "it's anyone's guess at this point" whether there will be a special session.
He said the Legislature likely will need a special session to find some resolution to a long-running dispute over how candidates for state school board are selected. It would be easy enough to address the SB54 disagreement and make other minor changes to the bill at that time.
Legislative leaders and the governor had already discussed changing the candidate-filing deadline. Now, signature-gatherers have to file on Jan. 1, 2016, to begin that process, but other candidates don't file until mid-March.
That means a candidate may go to the effort and cost of gathering signatures, only to end up running unopposed.
Lawmakers also discussed allowing voters to sign more than one petition for the same office and find some way to deal with primaries where the winning candidate gets a plurality less than 50 percent of the vote.
Niederhauser said there is "little chance" lawmakers would tackle the plurality issue in a special session.
Whatever is done, however, needs to be done quickly, Hughes said, so candidates know the ground rules for the 2016 election.
The lieutenant governor's office believes SB54 is clear and Thomas says Evans and the Utah Republican Party need to abide by the provision letting a candidate choose whether he or she wants to gather signatures to get on the primary ballot, go through the party convention, or both.
"Do they have some credibility in their legal arguments so far? We're not seeing it," Thomas said. "It's pretty clear the [candidate] decides."
But Evans points to an exchange in court last week between U.S. District Judge David Nuffer and Assistant Attorney General David Wolf, where Wolf explained to the judge that the law lets the candidate choose either signature-gathering or the convention or both. But it also gives the party the choice of which method it will recognize.
"So if they only permit nomination by convention, they would be a [Qualified Political Party, but] the member of the party has the option to use either method regardless of what the party permitted," Nuffer said.
"And therein lies the dispute or the conflict between the party defining its membership," Wolf replied.
"That's the next lawsuit," Nuffer acknowledged. "I can't deal with it today."
In a statement Wednesday, Count My Vote said that any party that tries to prohibit signature-gathering would lose its status as a "qualified political party" and forfeit its right to nominate candidates through a party convention.
That interpretation would mean candidates who try to go through the Republican Party convention would not get a place on the ballot.
Thomas said his office is still meeting with lawyers from the attorney general's office to work through that issue and there should be an answer within a few days.