Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
FILE - Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, and Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, listen to testimony at the Utah State Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 07, 2017. Legislation aimed to thwart a newly passed Utah Republican Party rule threatening to expel candidates who gather signatures to get on the primary election ballot passed a House committee Monday.

SALT LAKE CITY — Legislation aimed to thwart a newly passed Utah Republican Party rule threatening to expel candidates who gather signatures to get on the primary election ballot passed a House committee Monday.

HB485 would ensure that candidates who have already filed for office would be allowed on the 2018 primary ballot.

The measure would ensure that candidates can be on the ballot with their party affiliation, Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, told the House Business and Labor Committee.

"We want clarity for this election," he said. "We want candidates who decided to gather signatures and/or go to convention to feel comfortable with their decision, maintain the status quo."

The committee endorsed the bill 9-3, sending it to the full House for consideration.

The Republican State Central Committee voted to kick out candidates in two congressional districts who choose to collect signatures to gain a spot on the ballot. But Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, have not declared their intent to gather signatures — nor has any other Republican in those two districts.

The possibly illegal rule, though, could also have implications for federal, statewide and state legislative candidates throughout the state. It could also threaten the party's standing with the state status and puts the party at risk of not getting GOP candidates on the ballot.

Members of the party’s Central Committee made the changes during a "special" meeting last month. About 80 of the committee’s 180 members attended, but fewer than that were there to vote on the new bylaw.

"We believe this bylaw is valid. We also believe it's ridiculous that the state would consider creating retroactive legislation that once again determines how a party advances its candidates to the ballot," said Phill Wright, a Central Committee member who voted for the change.

Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, questioned how the Central Committee called the meeting, saying it was "underhanded." He said a small group of its members are trying assert power and control over the party.

The change appears to be a move to force the controversial signature-gathering path allowed under SB54 lawmakers passed several years ago to court again. An appeal of a court ruling upholding the law is pending in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

"Right now we are certainly in the possibility of a lawsuit," said Justin Lee, state elections director. "No legislation that is passed will take away that possibility"

The Utah GOP declared itself a "qualified political party" under the law, which allows candidates to get on the primary election ballot by gathering petition signatures, going through the political party’s convention, or both. Candidates in "registered political parties" are only allowed to use the signature gathering route.

McKell argued the party voluntarily chose to become a qualified political party last November and candidates up and down the state have relied on that. He said it's wrong the change the rules in the middle of the game. His bill would not allow a party to change its status after an election cycle has started.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said he was "very nervous" about the Republican Party being stripped of its qualified status and candidates not getting an "R" next to their name on the ballot. He rejected a suggestion that lawmakers wait to see how the issue plays out before passing a law.

"That’s like having at ticking tome bomb, and let's wait until it goes off and hope it turns out," he said.

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Democrats have watched in amusement and with some irritation as Republicans have fought over the Central Committee's action.

"Frankly, I'm a little put out that we're having the conversation," Rep. Susan Duckworth, D-Magna, told the committee. "It's a waste of our time."

If Republicans aren't happy with the Central Committee delegate, they should tell them to go "bye-bye" and vote in new leaders, she said.

"And then we can get some work done and not have to babysit political parties," Duckworth said.