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The Utah Republican Party went back to court late Friday, asking a federal judge to decide whether signature-gathering candidates are entitled to a spot on the primary ballot under a new election law or as the party contends the state GOP can disqualify candidates who don't go through the party convention.
The party also contends that the signature-gathering thresholds set under the new election law, SB54, impose unfair and unconstitutional burdens on its candidates in certain districts.
In its complaint, the Utah GOP asks the federal court to block the enforcement of SB54, effectively wiping out the signature-gathering path to the ballot that dozens of elected officials and candidates have said they plan to take.
The lawsuit, which had been anticipated for some time, sets the stage for the courts to resolve the thorny issue that has caused a deep rift between officials in the state's dominant political party and many of its elected officials.
Several of the top Republican officeholders have declared their intent to gather signatures to get on the primary ballot, including U.S. Sen. Mike Lee and Gov. Gary Herbert, who filed to collect signatures Friday afternoon.
The dispute has been brewing for months, since Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans claimed that SB54 lets the party choose whether it will nominate candidates through signature gathering, the normal party convention or both.
He said the Republican Party bylaws only provide for a convention path to the nomination.
Moreover, the party added a requirement that candidates for office comply with the party bylaws, meaning those who do not go through the convention could be disqualified by the party. Evans has said that any candidate who does not get 40 percent of the support from the convention delegates will not be eligible for the Republican primary ballot.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is in charge of the state elections office, disagrees and has said he intends to put any candidate on the primary ballot who gathers the required number of signatures.
Moreover, he has suggested that if the party seeks to disqualify signature-gathering candidates, the Utah GOP which is Cox's party may lose its status as a qualified political party, meaning only those candidates who gather signatures would make it onto the primary ballot.
"The state is seeking to impose on the party a system of candidate-selection rules and internal processes that is different from the rules and processes the party has chosen for itself to ensure that its nominees for elective office are members in good standing who represent its political platform," the lawsuit states. "In so doing, the state is violating the rights of the party and its members to free association, free speech and due process, and its ability to control its own brand and message, and its authority over its endorsement, name, and emblems."
The lawsuit also challenges the signature-gathering thresholds, arguing that they put unrealistic demands on Republican candidates as a way to coerce the party into opening its primaries to voters who are not affiliated with the party.
Traditionally, the GOP has let only Republicans vote in its primaries. As a result, only registered Republicans can sign petitions for Republican candidates. But that exclusivity poses serious challenges to some candidates trying to meet the signature thresholds.
For example, in Rep. Craig Hall's West Valley City district, he would have to collect signatures from about one-third of the registered Republicans in the area to meet the 1,000-signature threshold.
The party's attorneys argue that courts have struck down signature-gathering thresholds that require a candidate to get more than 5 percent of the eligible voters, because the amounts present unfair burdens to candidates.