SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Republican Party's State Central Committee voted Saturday to drop its federal court challenge over a controversial election law that changes how parties select nominees for public office.
The party had challenged SB54, adopted by the Utah Legislature in 2014, that allows potential candidates to get on the ballot through signature gathering rather than just delegates' votes at the party convention.
"The lower court rulings have essentially given us a road map for changing our governing documents to ensure we continue effectively working with our Republican Party candidates, and in effect minimize the impact of SB54," said a statement by Utah Republican Party Chairman James M. Evans.
"It didn't make much sense to continue a legal challenge when we can put into practice what we essentially need," he added. "A lot of unknowns were answered through this (legal) process."
In its challenge to the compromise legislation — which grew out of a citizens effort called Count My Vote — the state GOP argued that Utah lawmakers took away the party's right to determine the candidate selection process that would result in a nominee best suited to represent the party platform.
The fight boiled over from a difference in philosophy.
The Republican Party claims the law permits parties — not candidates — to choose between the convention system or signature gathering on behalf of their candidates. It chose the convention route and has said candidates who only collect signatures would no longer be members of the party under new rules adopted last summer.
In contrast, the Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office, which oversees state elections, maintains the law clearly leaves the choice to candidates, and that the state can permit candidates to go through the convention, gather signatures or both to qualify for the primary election.
After wrangling in court, the party last August said it would drop its challenge if the Utah Legislature adequately addressed its concerns.
The Legislature took up the issue of plurality with SB114, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. It requires a runoff election in primary races of three or more candidates if no one gets more than 35 percent of the vote. The Senate passed the bill last week, but there remains a number of issues to address before members of the House can take up the measure — especially given concerns over the short turnaround between a primary election and when a runoff might occur.
While addressing plurality concerns may help, Evans said ideally the Utah Legislature would repeal SB54 altogether.
Short of that, Evans said party leadership will use guidance from the language of those lower court rulings to ensure candidates adhere to platform principles.
"The ground has shifted to a different strategy that is more political," he said.