Last winter, as the 2014 legislative session was coming to its end, negotiations were frantically taking place between lawmakers and the backers of Count My Vote. A tenuous compromise was made between the two camps as SB 54 – Elections Amendments would pass the House and Senate by healthy margins.
At the time, Count My Vote was petitioning to change state law and allow candidates to go around Utah’s unique system of delegate-appointed candidates appearing on the ballot. Count My Vote advocated for an open primary option that would allow the citizens, rather than political party members, to choose who would appear on the ballot.
The issue was a divisive one among both Republican and Democratic party officials alike. The compromise, SB 54, would maintain the traditional nomination process until the 2016 election cycle. After that, SB 54 would allow for candidates to appear on the ballot after either going through the traditional delegate process or by collecting enough signatures to force a primary election.
It did not take long for speculation to loom over the long term fate of SB 54. Political insiders wondered if the 2015 legislative session would result in an overturning of SB 54 by lawmakers after the well funded and politically powerful Count My Vote petitioners claimed victory by collecting over 100,000 signatures in support of their cause.
Over the holiday weekend, the other shoe appeared to have dropped, when it was announced that the Utah GOP would file suit to against the state, the result of which will show whether or not the state has the right to determine how candidates are chosen by political parties.
“We want the court to determine the relationship between the state and political parties,” Utah GOP Chairman James Evans told KSL last week. “Our point of view is the state doesn’t have the constitutional right to reach in and tell us how to select our nominees.”
Supporters of Count My Vote began to cry foul long before the official announcement came.
“Polls demonstrated overwhelming public support for Count My Vote. However, a number of partisans, including some legislators, were strongly opposed to entirely losing the caucus/convention process,” Hinckley Institute of Politics Director and co-founder of Count My Vote, Kirk Jowers, said in an opinion piece two weeks ago in The Salt Lake Tribune. “There are discussions in back rooms and on social media that some political operatives are actively seeking to subvert the implementation of the SB 54 reform. Indeed, they are willing to renege on their compromise in order to rob power from the people in order to restore disproportionate influence back to the delegates. I am saddened but not surprised,” Jowers would add.
Now that a formal suit has been filed, the situation may grow uncomfortable for partisan elected officials who have to defend the state against the political party that has helped them move through the ranks. The Utah GOP has named Governor Gary Herbert and Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox as defendants in the case. Though this is a standard formality whenever the state is sued, the lawsuit does mean that the Utah Republican Party is suing the state’s top policy makers. Furthermore, Republican Attorney General Sean Reyes is constitutionally bound to defend the Governor and Lieutenant Governor in such cases.
For their part, the Attorney General’s office issued a statement saying that they view the lawsuit as a way to show the public that the office works to defend the laws passed, regardless of any personal feelings the AG might have toward those filing suit.
The lawsuit takes the action out of the hands of the Utah State Legislature and, barring any legislative action this session, prevents lawmakers from having to explain any switched votes after the last session – a tricky proposition considering that 37 House Republicans and 17 Senate Republicans voted for the final version of the legislation.