It might be that one of the few perquisites of office for a county clerk is to list his or her fellow party members first on Utah ballots. It's a traditional practice that is legal under state law.

But state Democratic Committee Chairman Peter Billings said at a Wednesday news conference that because the first name on the ballot always gets more votes, the practice is a violation of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.Further, Salt Lake County Clerk H. Dixon Hindley has "blatantly used his office to give political advantage" to the Republican Party because he places Republican candidates' names first, Billings said.

The practice is "purposeful discrimination" that will be challenged in the courts if it is not eliminated. "We're putting Dixon Hindley on notice," Billings said.

Hindley and Deputy Lt. Gov. Dave Hansen, who oversees state election practices, said Billings had trotted out a tired old complaint that members of both parties air every election year.

"This is so dumb it's ridiculous," Hindley said. "This same thing happens every two years. Have him check with Tooele County, where the clerk is a Democrat. If the Republicans are on top there, I'd like to know."

Billings acknowledged that Democrats knew long before this week that the clerk is allowed to decide who gets top ballot billing. "We've been complaining about this for some time," he said.

But it wasn't until recently that state Democrats discovered that challenges in other states have provided precedent for legal tests of the Utah election code provisions, he said.

Hansen said that although candidates call during every election to question their names' placement on the ballot, there has never to his knowledge been a formal complaint or threat of legal action in Utah.

"The law says the county clerk determines what the ballot looks like," Hansen said, adding that Billings ought not limit his charges to the Salt Lake County clerk.

"The same charge could be make by Republicans in Sanpete County," Hansen said. "(Democratic) county clerks have `blatantly' used their offices, too."

Republican candidates are listed first on all 52 Salt Lake County races in the Nov. 6 general election. The county, which claims 45 percent of the state's population, controls 32 of the 75 state House of Representatives seats and 12 of 29 state Senate seats.

Billings said the state Democratic Party would try to get the Legislature to change the laws allowing the clerk to decide which names go first on the ballot. But because the Republicans hold the majority of legislative seats, he said, the Democrats would probably have to take the issue to court.

The party would also seek to "cure any misuses" in Utah's other 28 counties, Billings said.