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SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge ordered the state Wednesday to put the fledgling United Utah Party's candidate on the November special election ballot for the open 3rd Congressional District seat.
That means the party's nominee, Jim Bennett, will compete with Democratic, Republican and other party candidates to replace former GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
"I'm over the moon and on the ballot," Bennett said.
Bennett said he believes the law was on the United Utah Party's side from the outset. He said he was "anxious but confident" while waiting for the judge's decision. "This is the result I expected," he said.
In a 50-page ruling, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer found the state has no justification to exclude the United Utah Party from the special election and that it violated Bennett's free speech and equal protection rights. Bennett's diligence in trying to meet the state's requirements to organize a new political party weighed heavily in his favor, according to the judge.
"Although party formation was omitted from the special election procedures, they made every reasonable attempt. Though they were rebuffed in their early attempts to form a party and designate a candidate, the plaintiffs have demonstrated compliance with reasonable expectations," Nuffer wrote.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who oversees state elections, said his office will comply with the order, and although the state doesn't agree with the ruling, it will not appeal.
"Our decisions were never specific to Mr. Bennett or the United Utah Party, or intended to disfavor them in anyway," he said in a prepared statement.
Cox said the state's actions were consistent with existing Utah law and with the sole interest of running an orderly election.
"It is unprecedented to place a political party candidate on the ballot before the political party is certified, and without a court order we could not make special exceptions for one candidate," he said.
The party sued Cox after the state elections office rejected Bennett's attempt to file as a candidate under the United Utah banner because the state had yet to certify its status. The party sought a preliminary injunction preventing the state from denying Bennett access to the November ballot.
Nuffer issued the injunction and directed the state to include Bennett on the Nov. 7 ballot. "Failure to issue an injunction would deny voters an important choice," the judge wrote.
Bennett, the son of the late Republican Sen. Jim Bennett, said he will now mount a "full-fledged" campaign. He said fundraising has been his biggest difficulty because potential donors told him to talk to them if he gets on the ballot.
"I have a lot of people I need to get back to," he said.
Assistant attorney general David Wolf argued in a court hearing last month that Cox had limited discretion on how to run the special election and tried to follow the same laws that govern a general election. He said the United Utah Party didn't exist when Bennett tried to file as a candidate.
Wolf said it was unreasonable for the elections office to drop everything in the middle of running the special election to focus on approving a new party, which included verifying 2,000 voter signatures.
But Nuffer found the elections office was not required to take all of the 30 days the law allows to review the United Utah Party's petition.
"But it did, even though the work could have been completed in two days," the judge wrote.
Bennett said he believes the Republican-controlled state threw up roadblocks to his party and candidacy to maintain GOP power. Looking back, he said, the state probably did the United Utah Party a favor because it showed the effects of one-party rule.
"Everything is designed to make life easy for people to vote Republican. We were a glitch in that design, and the state wasn’t willing to tolerate that," he said.
Bennett said he should be on the ballot to give politically moderate Utahns another choice.
"The Republicans and the Democrats have gone so far off the deep end that people in the middle have been left without a political home," he said.
In his ruling, Nuffer noted that the Republican Party has been "particularly dominant" in the 3rd District. All the decisions leading up to the special election were made by Republicans — from Chaffetz's resignation to Gov. Gary Herbert's election proclamation to Cox's management of the process, he wrote.
"The United Utah Party serves an important role as an alternative to the established political parties," the judge wrote