Utah GOP claims “Count My Vote” compromise law could keep them off the 2016 ballot

Posted at 11:22 AM, Feb 17, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-18 11:15:28-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Republican Party claims that if it is forced to implement some of the changes required by a compromise bill on "Count My Vote," it could kick the state's dominant political party off the 2016 ballot.

"If this isn't done properly, there's a very good chance the Utah Republican Party will not qualify for the ballot in 2016," said Clair Ellis, a member of the Utah GOP's constitutional bylaws committee told lawmakers at a committee hearing Tuesday morning.

The hearing was over House Bill 281, which sought to delay implementation of Senate Bill 54, the so-called "Count My Vote" compromise bill. The Utah GOP is suing over SB54, which provides an alternative path for candidates to get on the primary ballot if they gather enough signatures, skipping the caucus/convention system.

It's a path that got new scrutiny within the past day, when rumors began circulating that former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. was being courted for a challenge to Sen. Mike Lee.

"I didn't like the agreement," HB281 sponsor, Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, told the committee.

But he insisted his bill was not meant to dismantle SB54. Instead, it would delay it while the Utah GOP's lawsuit made its way through the courts. Opponents of Cox's bill said it would impact the 2016 election.

"The compromise was between the legislature and Count My Vote," Utah GOP chairman James Evans told the committee.

Either way, he suggested, the Republican Party would have likely sued.

Democrats on the committee were skeptical about whether the Utah GOP was actually complying with SB54 -- which is now law. Evans insisted they were attempting to, but it takes more time than allowed by the law.

Mark Thomas, the state elections director, told the committee the Utah Republican Party had talked to them about litigation over SB54, but not really any technical questions about implementing it. Thomas acknowledged that political parties would need to make bylaws changes, but he testified that he believed they could be implemented.

Still, many on the committee complained they did not like the law itself.

"This did not feel like a compromise," said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem. "This felt like a gun to the head."

But when it came down to a vote, HB281 failed on a 6-3 vote.

"There is one party that appears to be unwilling and unable to make changes," said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City.

Kirk Jowers, a co-founder of Count My Vote, told FOX 13 he did not believe the Utah GOP's threat of not being able to make the ballot in 2016 because they are unable to comply. He pointed out that it took the Utah Democratic Party five minutes to comply in an email sent to the state elections office.

Jowers said he believed lawmakers would honor the agreement that allowed SB54 to happen. There is a similar bill seeking to replace it making its way through the Senate. Jowers said that if lawmakers did break the deal that was brokered, he predicted Count My Vote would return as a signature ballot drive.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who helped broker the compromise between lawmakers and Count My Vote, told reporters on Tuesday that he believed Republicans would still be on the ballot in Utah in 2016.

"Republicans would still file as Republicans and still be on the ballot," Sen. Bramble said. "There’s a difference of opinion between the Republican party and the folks that actually have the responsibility for administering our election laws."

The Utah GOP's lawsuit over Count My Vote has a hearing in April in federal court. In a scheduling order recently filed in court and obtained by FOX 13, the likelihood of a settlement was listed as "fair."

Read the court filing here: