SALT LAKE CITY — A legal team is being assembled to help defend the new alternative to the caucus and convention system political parties use to nominate candidates, the chairman of the Count My Vote initiative effort said Monday.
"We're not looking for a fight or anything else. We're just saying we want to be prepared," Rich McKeown said. "Our effort is to promote, protect and preserve the the solution we were able to arrive at."
The action comes after Republicans approved a resolution at their state convention last month declaring the party has a constitutional right to select its own nominees and encouraging party leaders to defend those rights.
"There's only been noise of legal challenges," McKeown said, although he noted "it appears based on the language in the solution at the Republican convention, there could potentially be some litigation."
State GOP Chairman James Evans declined to say whether the party is looking at going to court to stop the deal reached between Count My Vote and state lawmakers during the 2014 Legislature.
After lawmakers approved SB54, allowing candidates the option of gathering signatures to secure a spot on the primary ballot, Count My Vote agreed to halt an initiative petition drive to replace the caucus and convention system.
"We have several options, and we're not going to publicly talk about them," Evans said. "We are going to be very judicious in whatever decision we make. We can't allow a public perception to form that's not based in reality."
He called a lawsuit one of the "multiple strategies" being considered in response to the resolution, including seeking to amend the Utah Constitution to spell out the party's rights.
"It says we should defend the party and they'll support the effort of leadership," the party chairman said of the resolution's language. "I read that we can go back to the Legislature."
Evans also declined to tell delegates at the final state party convention under the caucus and convention system what the party was planning, asking them if they really wanted the options for dealing with new law discussed in public.
The GOP, he said, has always maintained it has the constitutional authority to select the party's nominees. The possibility there could be future challenges to that authority is "untenable," Evans said.
"We're looking longer term. We don't know what laws will come out in the future. That's been our point all along," he said. "We don't know how far they're willing to go with this."
The sponsor of SB54, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, defended the new law, set to take effect for the 2016 elections.
"The ballot is the people's ballot, not the party's ballot," Bramble said. "Parties have the right to nominate the candidates of their choice, but they don't have an inherent right to put their candidate directly on the ballot."
Bramble said lawmakers will take up issues related to the alternative ballot route in the 2015 Legislature, including how to handle primary elections with multiple candidates where the winner fails to get a majority of the votes cast.
That could mean requiring a run-off election or letting the party choose the nominee, Bramble said. And some states allow candidates to advance to the general election with less than a majority of the primary vote.
McKeown said Count My Vote would like to see action taken in the upcoming legislative session to allow candidates to gather voter signatures online as well as in person.
Bramble said permitting electronic signatures may be a tough sell to lawmakers. But the state senator said even though there may be attempts next session to repeal the law, the compromise should remain intact.
"It would be very difficult for the Legislature to undo that," Bramble said. "I don't see that changing."
Mark Hedengren, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, for the GOP nomination at the state convention, said he supports the compromise.
Hedengren said to successfully court the party delegates elected at neighborhood caucuses, he would have had to invest several years of effort. Add that to the cost of participating in party activities, and it's cheaper to gather signatures, he said.
Under the caucus and convention system, Hedengren said, it would take "a miracle" for a challenger to push an incumbent into a primary. Then, he said, that candidate would face the additional costs of another election.
"Primaries make a party strong," said Hedengren, the owner of an equipment rental business. "We need to go through that process to make sure we've got the right person for the job."
Hedengren declined to speculate on what the party may do about the new law.
"I guess that's a constitutional law thing that I'm not going to make a comment on," he said.
Another Republican, Jewel Allen, recently wrote an op-ed for the Deseret News describing her change of heart about the caucus system after serving as a county delegate.
Allen said the resolution passed at the state GOP convention is confusing.
"If it preserves a way for the party to maintain some influence over the process, I'm all for it," she said. "I would support what leadership does if they feel like it benefits the party."