Rick Bowmer
FILE- In this Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, file photo, shows the Utah House of Representatives on the floor at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. More than 90 percent of campaign donations to Utah lawmakers came from special interests like the health care and finance industries, according to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of official disclosure forms. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY — GOP lawmakers said Wednesday they want to take action before the session ends to counter a surprise bylaw change made by a small group of state party officials that could keep Republicans from getting on the ballot.

Both Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, are looking at giving Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who oversees state elections and is also a Republican, the authority to alter the status of the Utah GOP.

Cox said in a statement that lawmakers are working "to help provide clarity and ensure a fair election. While it may be difficult this late in the session to pass such legislation, my office will work with legislators as necessary."

The lieutenant governor said he is "duty-bound to ensure that all candidates who rely on the existing law are included on the ballot, and I intend to certify candidates as such."

But he said should the issue end up in court, there are no guarantees. He said the party's bylaw change "has once again left many Republican candidates with confusion and uncertainty."

The change made by members of the Utah GOP State Central Committee last Saturday, Cox said, "puts every Republican candidate at risk, as a judge could revoke the party's qualified political party status."

Lawmakers are proposing that instead of being a "qualified political party," able to advance candidates to a primary through the traditional caucus and convention process, the Utah GOP would become a "registered political party."

That would mean the only way Republican candidates could appear on a ballot is if they gathered voter signatures. Currently, all of the seven political parties recognized in the state have qualified status.

The Utah GOP registered last September as a qualified political party, which requires accepting candidates who gather voter signatures as well as those who compete for party delegate support at convention.

But a small group of State Central Committee members voted to reject candidates who choose to collect signatures to get on the 2018 primary election ballot in two of Utah's four congressional districts.

The current congressmen in those districts, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, have not declared their intent to gather signatures — nor has any other Republican running so far in the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts.

The change in party bylaws is viewed as possibly illegal and seen as having implications for federal, statewide, state legislative or State School Board elections in the future.

Bramble, the sponsor of the controversial 2014 law known as SB54 that created an alternative path to the ballot by gathering voter signatures, said that law never anticipated a party would intentionally do something disqualifying its status.

"We are going to attempt to close that loophole," the senator said, adding that lawmakers "believe it's appropriate for the Legislature to create election laws rather than leaving it to a court."

The Utah Republican Party has already taken the state to court over SB54 and is appealing a loss in federal district court to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in a costly legal battle.

Other options were considered, including resetting the party's bylaws to what they were last September, Bramble said, but lawmakers have settled on giving the lieutenant governor the power to intervene.

Cox spoke to both the House and Senate GOP caucuses Wednesday about the proposed bill.

McKell, who opened a bill file in the House, agrees that one option for solving the problem would be a default to registered political party status.

“I think what he’s talked about is fine. That’s exactly right,” he said of Bramble’s idea.

McKell said he hopes to have draft legislation in the next day or so.

The lieutenant governor told a closed House GOP caucus Wednesday that he and attorneys are still reviewing the bylaw change, McKell said.

“The lieutenant governor has clearly expressed concern to our House and Senate caucus," he said. "There’s clearly concern about the illegal action taken by the State Central Committee.”

3 comments on this story

Bramble, who described the party members who made the change as a "faction," said his advice to candidates is to gather voter signatures to ensure a place on the ballot.

Signatures must be submitted for verification no later than two weeks before a party's nominating convention — April 21 for the Utah GOP. Under registered party status, a significantly smaller number of voter signatures are required.

The Utah Democratic Party issued a statement Wednesday calling for the lieutenant governor to rescind the state GOP's eligibility as a qualified political party.

Contributing: Dennis Romboy