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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans said Friday the party plans to hold a caucus instead of a primary election next year to choose the Republican nominee for president.
"We'll just do our own presidential caucus," Evans said, calling the decision the party's to make. "If the state is trying to insist on something different, then they would be out of bounds here."
It's the latest salvo in an ongoing dispute between Utah Republicans on how best to select candidates and centers on control of the nominating process and voter turnout.
Rep. John Cox, R-Ephraim, said he wants to draft a bill to hold an online primary election for president in 2016. Cox said the dates of the primary will also have to be changed to conform with new national party requirements.
Last year, Cox tried unsuccessfully to get lawmakers to try online voting in a bill that also included a mandate that Utah be the first in the nation to hold a presidential primary.
Cox, who said his new legislation won't contain such a mandate, said he sees no need to switch from a primary election.
"I would hope we would have a primary so more Utahns could participate in the process," he said. "I think people want to choose their presidential nominee through a primary as we've done before."
Evans said holding a caucus would attract more Utahns to participate in the state's unique system that gives delegates selected at caucus meetings the power to nominate candidates at a convention.
We'll just do our own presidential caucus... If the state is trying to insist on something different, then they would be out of bounds here.
–Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans
"One of the most appealing things is we certainly will be able to educate the public on the caucus system," Evans said. He has suggested a GOP presidential caucus vote could be cast online.
Typically, caucus votes are cast at local meetings held on a designated caucus night. A primary election — which Republicans close to those who aren't members of the party — allows votes to be cast by mail or through early voting as well as on Election Day.
The caucus and convention system is set to change next year as a result of a compromise reached between lawmakers and organizers of the Count My Vote initiative, which would have replaced it with a direct primary.
Starting next year, candidates will be able to either go through the current nomination system or gather signatures to qualify for a spot on the primary ballot. The state GOP is suing over the deal made in SB54.
Gov. Gary Herbert has proposed spending $3 million on a presidential primary election next year, said state elections director Mark Thomas. Thomas said with an open presidential seat, the election could be one of the state's biggest.
In 2012, presidential candidates were included on the state's June primary ballot. Two years earlier, when the race was more competitive, Utah held a separate presidential primary in early February.
Next year, most presidential primaries and caucuses are expected to be held in March because of changes made by the Republican National Committee intended to shorten the primary season.