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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Republican Party plans to file a lawsuit against a compromise reached by lawmakers on an initiative to change the state's unique system for selecting candidates, state GOP Chairman James Evans said Tuesday.
"We want the court to determine the relationship between the state and political parties," Evans said. "Our point of view is the state doesn’t have the constitutional right to reach in and tell us how to select our nominees."
Evans said the suit is going to be filed in federal court Wednesday now that county parties have agreed to contribute the needed funds. He said Tuesday he was still waiting to review the final document.
The GOP leader has long talked about mounting a legal challenge to the effort by Count My Vote, a group led by former Gov. Mike Leavitt and other prominent Republicans, that started as a citizens initiative.
During the 2014 Legislature, a deal was reached to stop the initiative petition drive that would have replaced the state's caucus and convention system with a direct primary in exchange for creating an alternative route to the ballot for candidates.
Under SB54, candidates will have the option of bypassing the current system, where those with enough support can be nominated at a party convention, and instead gather voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot.
We want the court to determine the relationship between the state and political parties. Our point of view is the state doesn’t have the constitutional right to reach in and tell us how to select our nominees.
–GOP Chairman James Evans
The bill also opens up primary elections to all voters. Currently, the GOP only permits registered Republicans to vote in the party's primaries, while the Democrats hold open elections to nominate their general election candidates.
Evans said the state does not have the right to provide another way for candidates to run as a member of a political party or have the right to decide who votes in a primary.
But Evans said the lawsuit won't be about the details of the compromise, rather what he said is the government making decisions about elections that rightly belong to what are private organizations.
"That was not our compromise. We had nothing to do with that. Our position has never changed," the state GOP chairman said. "This is our brand. We’re a private organization."
Evans said he asked both Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon and leaders of Count My Vote to join the lawsuit because "it just seems like common sense" to get the constitutional questions answered.
Neither Corroon nor Count My Vote had any interest in participating.
Corroon said Democrats are "happy with the compromise" and see it as a the best of both worlds since delegates elected at caucus meetings will still choose candidates at party conventions.
"There may be some constitutional questions, but I’m a pragmatist and I think it’s good for the state," Corroon said. "I think it will bring more centrist-minded candidates to the ballot. I think that’s good for Utah."
A Count My Vote founder, Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said he also turned down Evans' offer to join the lawsuit.
"The unfortunate thing about Chairman Evans filing this lawsuit against his governor and his legislators that passed it is there’s not a lot of merit and it’s not novel enough to even be interesting," Jowers said.
The unfortunate thing about Chairman Evans filing this lawsuit against his governor and his legislators that passed it is there's not a lot of merit and it's not novel enough to even be interesting.
–Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics
The compromise legislation was passed by the GOP-dominated Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican. At least one Republican lawmaker, however, plans to revisit the deal in the 2015 Legislature.
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said he will reintroduce an amendment to the Utah Constitution spelling out that political parties can do what they want when it comes to elections.
Jenkins said he will also sponsor a bill allowing political parties to close primary elections to voters who aren't registered members.
"My point and my objection to SB54 has been the same all the time. I don’t believe the government should be able to tell a political party who their candidate is or how they get them," the state senator said.
He said lawmakers were coerced to approve the compromise, out of fear the initiative would be approved and do away with the caucus and convention system for nominating candidates altogether.
"The parties were blackmailed in this whole thing," Jenkins said. "All we’re trying to do is save the rights we have under the Constitution because the state took them away from us."