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The Utah Republican Party says it will not comply with state election law or a ruling from the Utah Supreme Court that would require it to recognize GOP candidates who gather signatures rather than go to the party convention to get on the ballot.
Utah's high court ruled last week that state law gives candidates the option of getting on the primary ballot by attending the party convention, gathering signatures or both.
But attorneys for the party argued in a court filing Wednesday to U.S. District Judge David Nuffer that the state court ruled on the disputed interpretation of the law, not the constitutionality of it. The party insists the state cannot dictate how the GOP can decide who represents the party on the ballot and, in attempting to do so, is violating the Republican Party's First and 14th Amendment rights.
The GOP reaffirmed that it could seek to expel Republican candidates from the party and have them removed from the ballot if those candidates only gather signatures and do not seek the nomination at the convention.
Nuffer asked the party to answer those questions whether it would comply with the Supreme Court ruling, whether it planned to disqualify candidates and how it planned to do so, along with whether it had sought to disqualify any candidates ahead of a hearing scheduled for Friday.
That hearing will address whether the GOP's ability to control who is and is not a party member allows it to dictate who is eligible for the primary ballot.
If Nuffer rules that letting a candidate pick how to seek the nomination is not an unconstitutional infringement on party control and that the party cannot disqualify members from the ballot if they don't abide by party rules, then, Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans said, "because we're the party of the rule of law, of course we'll follow it." An appeal, however, to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could also be possible at that point, he said.
According to the state GOP, SB54, the legislation that enacted the dual-track path to the ballot, "imposes an unconstitutional burden on [the party's] rights."
"It forces the [Utah Republican Party] to comply with the requirement that candidates may seek the party's nomination solely through the signature-gathering process, in contravention of [party] rules," the party wrote in its memorandum. "To the extent that the state would force the party to designate, or designate for the party, a candidate who does not comply with the party's procedures, the party intends to challenge that action in defense of its rights."
State law permits parties to require candidates to be a member to get on the ballot as the party's nominee. The question before Nuffer will be to what extent the party can enforce its membership and whether, by expelling a member from the party, it can keep a candidate off the ballot.
The party would notify any candidate who is gathering signatures but not attending the convention that they are out of compliance with the rules. If the candidate doesn't comply, an investigative committee would be formed to gather information on the violation and forward a recommendation to the Republican State Central Committee, which could sanction or expel the member.
Under the GOP's interpretation, simply gathering signatures does not violate party rules, but it is a meaningless effort because nobody can get on the ballot as a Republican through the signature route.
It is the final piece of the Utah Republican Party's multipronged lawsuit challenging SB54, the 2014 law crafted in response to an effort by the group Count My Vote to do away with party nominating conventions.
Leaders of Count My Vote, a group of well-connected Utah politicos, argued that the convention system catered to the most extreme elements of the parties and yielded candidates outside the Utah mainstream.
Nuffer ruled late last year that the party could not be forced to open its primaries to unaffiliated voters, or to let the 640,000 unaffiliated voters sign candidate petitions.
Earlier this month, Nuffer upheld the signature thresholds candidates have to clear 1,000 in state House races and 2,000 in Senate races to get on the ballot. Nuffer said that, on their own, the hurdles were probably too high to be considered constitutional, but because candidates could also go through the convention, which is constitutional, the signature path merely expands access to the ballot and is legal.
The Utah Supreme Court ruled last week that it's the candidates, not the party, who get to choose how the candidates will seek the party nod signatures, convention or both.