SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Republican Party — through the courts, through the legislative process and personal communications with registered Republicans — intends to address "harms" to the party resulting from the passage of SB54.
SB54, passed by the Utah Legislature in 2014, established two paths for candidates to appear on primary election ballots: the existing caucus-convention system as well as a candidate qualifying for the ballot by collecting a sufficient number of signatures.
"There are some real harms that need to be addressed," said Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans during a meeting with the Deseret News/KSL Editorial Board Monday.
The Utah Republican Party did not participate in negotiations over SB54, which at the time was described as a compromise with supporters of the Count My Vote initiative, Evans said. The ballot initiative would have asked voters whether to switch from the caucus-convention system to a direct primary to select party nominees.
Even though SB54 passed handily in heavily Republican Utah House and Utah Senate and was signed into law by a Republican governor, Evans said there were "unintended" consequences.
One of his key responsibilties as state party chairman, he said, is to preserve the integrity of the Republican party "brand."
Voters who cast ballots for Republican candidates should have a reasonable expectation that those candidates support the GOP platform.
"If you look at just the Count My Vote provision of SB54, you don’t have to be a registered Republican to become a Republican nominee. I think that's a pretty big deal," Evans said.
SB54 also requires political parties to open up primary elections to all voters. For years, the state GOP has only allowed registered Republicans to vote in its primaries while the Democrats allow any registered voter to vote.
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, has filed a bill to be considered by the Utah Legislature that would gut the requirements under SB54 that would allow unaffiliated voters to participate in party primaries.
The Utah Republican Party has filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Utah challenging the constitutionality of SB54. Gov. Gary Herbert, et al, are named as defendants.
The lawsuit claims SB54 violates the party's constitutional protections, among them the rights of members to associate in a political party and to act and govern themselves as a political party.
Attorneys for the Utah GOP have asked a federal judge to stay "the enforcement and/or implementation of SB54," according to court documents filed Jan. 1.
Rich McKeown, executive co-chairman of Count My Vote, said "we never thought Count My Vote would go away.
"We always thought over time we’d try to engage ourselves in other noble causes that would increase voter participation, but we didn’t think we’d be quite in the defensive mode that we are right now," he said.
Count My Vote supporters will work to preserve SB54, which McKeown described as "an elegant compromise."
The group has offered to help the Utah Attorney General's Office in defending SB54 in court. Supporters will likely submit friend of the court briefs in defense of the legislation, McKeown said.
The group also plans to mobilize support through renewed social media efforts.
"We’ll certainly keep our finger on the pulse of things at the Legislature and we will do what we can to defend and protect what we think was a good decision that the Legislature made," he said.
The organization would prefer, in light of the lawsuit challenging SB54 and proposed legislation that would revoke it, that the Utah Legislature "stand down and do nothing relative to changing this. Any modification just complicates the situation further. We ought to get through an election cycle and see how it works before any tweaks are done," McKeown said.
But Evans says SB54 will require massive restructuring on the part of Utah Republican Party to comply with its "aggressive timeline."
"The Utah Republican Party will make every effort to comply with SB54, but will officially notify the Utah state elections officer if it is not able to comply," a statement from the party says.
Evans said a recently conducted internal Republican Party poll indicates public support for the party's actions.
A poll of 542 Utahns showed 59 percent of all voters support the GOP's lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of SB54. The poll said 40 percent of Republicans support SB54.
The poll, conducted Dec. 18-23 by CallAssistant, a surveying firm based in Logan, showed that half of all Utahns support SB54. The telephone poll has a +/-5.2 percent margin of error. Evans said the poll questions were prepared as an in-kind contribution to the Utah Republican Party by a professional polling firm.
The GOP survey was launched three days after results of a UtahPolicy.com poll were published, which showed that a majority of Utahns support SB54. That poll showed 62 percent of Utahns supported the Count My Vote compromise, which established two means for candidates to appear on the primary ballot.
That poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, showed 49 percent of Republicans polled supported SB54 while 41 percent opposed it. The poll of 609 Utahns had a +/- 3.97 margin of error.
McKeown said what he finds most unfortunate is that through the lawsuit and legislative proposals aimed at revoking SB54, the Republican party is "questioning their own party members.
"They’re invalidating their actions. If you look at people doing it, they're doing it under the auspices of the party. I don’t think its representative of the party. It's representative of a small group," McKeown said.
But Evans says the Count My Vote organization wants a new set of rules to disadvantage a particular political viewpoint. The party's primary concerns with SB54 and the Count My Vote initiative were that they are not "viewpoint neutral."
The party stepped in the fray because SB54 strips the party of its First Amendment right to identify its nominees to the public, Evan said.
"This is very simple. If you don't harm us, we don't respond."