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The Utah Republican Party flip-flopped this weekend on a decision that it made just three weeks ago to drop its legal challenges to a new law, called SB54, that changed how candidates qualify for the ballot.

The party's central committee voted nearly unanimously Saturday to reverse course and now continue its appeal at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals over the law that allows candidates to qualify for the ballot through the traditional party caucus-convention system, by collecting enough signatures, or both.

Party chairman James Evans said the main reason was the offer of some free legal help, and a feeling that the party was so close to a decision that it made sense to pursue it — even if it goes against deals struck with legislators to stop the appeal.

"There was no way I was going to support any additional debt to the party," Evans said, adding that was a main reason the party voted on Feb. 4 to drop its appeal. But he said critics of that earlier decision "to their credit, said, 'Let's find a way out.' "

He said several lawyers then offered free help, including Morgan Philpot, a former state legislator and congressional candidate who was also part of the legal team that won the acquittal of Ammon Bundy last year in the Malheur refuge standoff. Another, Evans said, is former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

"Amongst the lawyers, they figured a way to ensure that no more costs will come to the party," Evans said. For any out-of-pocket court costs, "a few donors have stepped up to pay that directly to the attorneys."

Evans said the party's attorney "had already filed our pleas to the 10th Circuit, and the state was going to file a response brief." So, he said party leaders felt they should "just get the answer from the 10th Circuit, since we are so close."

He added, "Whether it is in our favor or the state's favor, we will be fine with it — whichever way it goes."

The party has argued that it should control how its nominees are chosen, and favors using only the traditional caucus-convention system — not the hybrid created by SB54. The party has lost rulings so far before the Utah Supreme Court and federal district court.

The new action breaks a deal with legislators. The party had agreed to drop its lawsuit if lawmakers fixed a problem where SB54 might allow a candidate in a crowded primary field to win with a small plurality.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, author of the original SB54, wrote a new bill, SB114. It would force a runoff election if more than four candidates appear in a primary, and no one wins at least 35 percent of the vote. SB114 has passed the Senate, and is pending in the House.

Evans said the central committee also voted over the weekend to now oppose SB114 as currently written — even though it previously supported it. He said the group had second thoughts about possibly forcing an extra election, saying it may cost too much and hurt candidates.

"If you are of modest means, you could have a convention fight, a primary fight, and you may potentially have a runoff fight and then a general election fight," Evans said.

So, interestingly, the committee also voted to recommend that the Legislature instead consider HB349 by a Democrat, Rebecca Chavez-Houck of Salt Lake City, that instead would create "instant runoff elections."

In that system, in a crowded primary, voters would rank their first-, second-, third-choice, etc. If no one achieved a majority initially, the lowest-vote-receiving candidate would be eliminated. Supporters of that eliminated candidate would have votes shifted to their second-choice. The process would repeat until someone wins a majority, and eliminate any extra runoff election.

Bramble said Sunday, "It's interesting that the party demanded a solution to plurality. The Legislature has put forth a solution to plurality, but the party now is rejecting this because they believe it can mainstream SB54."

He added, "There is very little, if any, appetite to pursue instant runoff voting. When we met with the county clerks, the representation was that every county clerk would oppose it."

Evans said despite such differences, the central committee also reaffirmed its support for efforts by the Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert to protect the caucus convention system. Bramble said his SB54 did that by compromising with Count My Vote ballot initiative supporters who sought to create a direct primary.

"We would prefer not to have SB54," Evans said, "but that is not defining our relationship or our commitment to being united with our elected officials in the party so that we can be successful."