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If it would amuse them to do so, the honchos who run the Utah Republican Party can build a secret, underground clubhouse, make up passwords, invent a secret handshake and impose whatever loyalty oaths, litmus tests and other barriers to entry they like.

As long as the resulting organization would be neither a government agency nor a public accommodation, it would be nobody's business but their own.

Unless and until that group wants the right to place the names of candidates for federal, state and local office on the official ballots to be printed and distributed by county clerks in a process overseen by the lieutenant governor's office.

At that moment, their organization would be seeking a portion of the most public real estate there is. And the state has the right and the duty to set standards for how those precious spots will be allocated.

That's the message that should have gotten through to the Utah GOP in Friday's ruling by the Utah Supreme Court, the one upholding the system created by the Legislature in 2015's Senate Bill 54.

That law, a compromise with the public interest group called Count My Vote, was an effort to make the process of nominating candidates open to more people, specifically by allowing candidates to win a spot on party primary ballots either by gathering signatures or by seeking support from the traditional, in Utah, caucus and convention system.

The state not only had the power to do that, it was also wise to do so. Governments need legitimacy in order to function. And the right way to do that is to create a system that is open enough to allow many to run for office, and to give everyone else the feeling that they have a voice in the process.

State Republicans, though, have fought SB54 at nearly every turn. They have even gone to federal court to try to get the Utah Supreme Court ruling overturned.

Utah Republicans insist their party is a private club, with the right to make its own rules and limit its members as it sees fit, with no interference from the state.

On a freedom of association basis, that argument has a certainly constitutional soundness. But it fizzles out when that private association seeks to be an approved participant in the most basic of all public institutions, an election.

Neither the Republicans, nor anyone else, can claim a right to a space on the ballot just 'cause. They have to earn it, by following the rules set down by the only legitimate authority on the issue, the Legislature.

The Republicans, like everyone else, have the right to campaign and lobby for whatever rules they think best. The concern, for example, that the law now requires an unreasonably high number of signatures for some would-be candidates is a valid point that needs hashing out.

But it needs to be worked out by the legitimate route, though the legislative process, and not left up to political parties to decide how their precious access to the ballot will be earned.