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Will The Utah GOP Really Expel Candidates Who Only Gather Signatures?

Brian Grimmett
File: Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans explains voting procedures at the party's 2012 state convention

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber, is the only sitting legislator that has chosen to just gather signatures in his effort to be re-elected. But as the Utah Republican Party fights the state over the constitutionality of the law that allows him to do that, his status as a member of the party remains in limbo.

In its latest filings in federal court, lawyers for the Utah Republican Party refute the opinion of the Utah Supreme Court that said the state’s election laws allow candidates to choose which path they to take to the primary ballot. The lawyers argue that it doesn’t matter how the Utah Supreme Court interprets that part of the law, because the law as a whole violates the party’s first amendment rights. Because of that claim, leaders of the Utah GOP believe they don’t have to allow a candidate that doesn’t get at least 40% of the delegate vote at convention on their primary ballot.

That puts Rep. Kraig Powell in a tough spot, because there’s no way he can get 40% of the delegate vote since he won’t be participating in the party’s convention.

“I don’t have a lot of uncertainties about the court," he says. "There have been enough decisions by enough of the judges that I can see where they’re going. What I don’t know is what the Republican Party’s brief means that they filed a couple of days ago. Where they basically said, we’re not going to cooperate, we’re going to kick people out”

Utah GOP Chairman James Evans told KUER that he’s not sure what’s going to happen with Rep. Powell either, and said he wouldn’t have an answer until after the issue is settled in federal court.

Meanwhile, Powell says because he gathered the required number of signatures he expects to be put on the GOP primary ballot, but is ready to fight if he isn’t.

“It would be my intention that if for some reason I am declared not eligible for the ballot, then just like the Republican Party is doing now in litigation, then I would definitely want to be involved as a party with standing to challenge that on appeal,” he says.

Powell also has some reassurance from the Lt. Governor’s office. The director of elections has continued to assert that unless a judge says otherwise, they will put any candidate that meets the requirements, either through convention or signature gathering, on the ballot. 

Update Friday April 15, 2016 7:30 p.m.

U.S. District Court Judge David Nuffer has ruled against the Utah Republican Party in its fight against SB54. In his opinion, Nuffer writes that the Utah GOP's first amendment rights are not severely burdened by the state outlining how candidates can appear on a party's primary ballot. He concludes SB54, "which allows candidates for public office to choose to access the primary election ballot by signature gathering, by participating in a party’s convention, or both, does not impair the [Utah Republican Party's] constitutional rights but is a legitimate exercise of the state’s power to regulate elections."

Shortly before the judge issued his ruling, lawyers for the Utah GOP filed a clarification saying, if the judge rules SB54 is constitutional, they intend on staying a Qualified Political Party and complying with the laws requirements.

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