SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah GOP is reversing its decision to drop a legal challenge of the Count My Vote election law change that allows candidates a pathway to a primary ballot by gathering signatures.
In a special meeting Saturday, the Utah Republican Party State Central Committee voted to see through its appeal of SB54, according to a statement from state party chairman James Evans. The committee had voted earlier this month to end the costly legal battle, part of a deal with state leaders.
In the statement, Evans indicated that since the decision was made to drop the challenge, the party has found "a pathway to finish the final stages of the federal appeal without any additional cost to the party."
Donors will cover any out-of-pocket costs to the party's attorney, Marcus Mumford, Evans said Sunday. Utah GOP attorney Chris Troupis and former legislator Morgan Philpot — who served alongside Mumford as a defense attorney for Ammon Bundy and others acquitted of federal charges in standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon — will also be working on the lawsuit at no cost.
Evans said former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has also expressed interest in working on the case.
Saturday's special meeting was called after party members unhappy with the decision to abandon the case partway through sought options to continue the case without the party having to pay for it, Evans said.
The Utah GOP lost its challenge to SB54 in federal district court last spring. The lawsuit claims the party has a constitutional right to control how its candidates are selected through its unique caucus and convention nominating process.
Evans said that the party only wants to continue with the lawsuit to allow the appellate court to render a decision. Regardless of what that the court decides, Evans said that will be the end of the road for the lawsuit.
"Since we were so close to getting an answer, we've already invested so much, let's just find out what that answer is. Whichever way it goes is fine. Let's just find out what it is," he said. "Let's just get to that endpoint, wrap things us, and then we can be done."
After two years in court, Evans said he believes the 10th Circuit could render a decision about the lawsuit in a matter of months.
The decision to keep going is not meant to indicate that the party is displeased with state leaders and the compromises made regarding Count My Vote, Evans said.
Prior to the committee's vote Saturday, Evans said he presented three conditions for continuing with the appeal: that no additional cost be incurred by the party; that it be clearly communicated the move is for the purpose of receiving an answer from the 10th Circuit Court and not meant to be adversarial; and that the party reaffirm its appreciation for Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature for efforts to preserve the caucus system.
Last August, party leaders approved a resolution pledging to drop the lawsuit if the 2017 Legislature addressed concerns of plurality — the possibility that a candidate in a crowded primary could win with less than 50 percent of the vote.
In response, SB114, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, passed the Utah Senate and was set to be considered by the state House. The bill would require a runoff election, conducted by mail to save money and time, if the victor of a primary race between more than three candidate ends up winning with less than 35 percent of the vote.
Evans said that while the party does not support SB114 because of the cost a runoff election would place on candidates, he appreciates Bramble's work and believes the Legislature has held up its end of the bargain.
The party is more favorable to the instant runoff proposal through ranked voting proposed in HB349. However, the bill sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Chavez Houck, D-Salt Lake City, carries a possible one-time cost of $10 million for new voting equipment. The bill is being debated in the house.
If no solution to plurality emerges at the close of the legislative session, Evans reiterated that lawmakers will have done what they committed to by looking into possible fixes, and the party will wait to see whether issues arise in future elections.
"The Legislature is offering a solution. If we don't support that solution, that's not on the Legislature," Evans said. "The State Central Committee is saying that, based on what's offered, let's just take a wait-and-see attitude and see what happens in 2018."