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Utah Republicans Fight Direct Primary Law

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - Utah's Republican Party sued the governor, claiming a new law requiring direct primaries will muck up its nomination process and impose a "Byzantine regimen of rules and internal processes."

The party sued Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox on Nov. 26 in Federal Court.

They claim Senate Bill 54 , an amendment to state election code that Herbert signed in March, was a "grand compromise" between the Legislature and Count My Vote, a group that aimed to do away with the state's caucus-convention system and replace it with a direct primary.

"Beginning in approximately the spring of 2013, a handful of well-known, influential, and self-described bipartisans began an effort to change the Utah election code for the purpose of affecting the message and 'priorities' expressed by the Utah Republican Party in its chosen candidate selection process, and decreasing the level of responsiveness that party nominees who won election showed to the party and its party platform," the lawsuit states.

Republicans say Count My Vote demanded the party change its candidate nomination rules "under threat of a ballot initiative that would impose change on the party through the Utah election code."

A state central committee rejected Count My Vote's demands in 2013, Republicans say, but the group "proceeded to raise large sums of money from a few, wealthy donors who shared its views and desire to change, from the outside, the Party's priorities and messaging by enacting reforms in the Utah election code that would force the Party to change the internal rules and procedures governing its candidate selection process."

Count My Vote and its supporters "admitted and touted" the initiative as a "bipartisan effort" aimed at affecting the priorities and messaging of the Republican Party, the complaint states.

During the 2014 legislative session, Count My Vote organizers allegedly worked with Utah lawmakers to enact their initiative by statute.

"From these efforts, the party understands that organizers of Count My Vote and Utah lawmakers struck what was characterized as a 'grand compromise' to enact the Count My Vote ballot initiative into law, with other reforms, in what came to be known as S.B. 54, amending the Utah election code," the lawsuit states.

Specifically, S.B. 54 amended the term "candidates for elective office," once defined as the person "selected by a registered political party as party candidate to run in a regular general election," to eliminate any reference to the political party, now defined as a person "who file[s] a declaration of candidacy under Section 20A-9-202 to run in a regular general election for a federal office, constitutional office, multicounty office, or county office."

That shift, Republicans say, could dilute and change the party's message.

They claim that SB 54 also limits a political party's right to communicate its endorsement on a ballot by prohibiting "endorsements," "symbols, markings or other descriptions of a political party" or any "indication that a candidate for elective office has been nominated by, or has been endorsed by, or is in any way affiliated with a political party," except where the candidate is nominated in a manner approved and mandated by the state under Utah Code Ann. § 20A-9-202(4) for presidential and vice-presidential candidates, or Utah Code Ann. § 20A-9-403(5) for all other federal, state or local candidates.

"The party understands that SB 54 incorporated almost the entire language, verbatim, of Count My Vote's ballot initiative, with additional reform provisions imposed by the state regarding the manner in which a political party chooses its nominees, and it is therefore reasonable to impute to SB 54 the intent of Count My Vote to change the Utah election code for the purpose of affecting the influence of the party, diluting and changing the message and 'priorities' expressed by the party in its chosen candidate selection process, and decreasing the level of responsiveness that party nominees who win election commit to the party and its platform," the lawsuit states. "That the state was also involved in this effort to impose these changes on the party through the enactment of SB 54 does not make the constitutional infringements it represents any more acceptable."

SB 54 is to take effect on Jan. 1, 2015. Utah will hold its first direct, open primary in 2016.

Calls to the party for comment were not returned by press time.

"Those responsible for SB 54 have admitted that the intent of the law was not viewpoint neutral, as it was enacted to produce party nominees for elected office who will represent different 'priorities' and 'views' than the political views of party and its members and to make the party's winning candidates less responsive and accountable to the party and its platform," the 43-page lawsuit states.

"While Utah election law may govern the time, place, and manner of elections, it must accommodate and respect the rights of political parties operating within its boundaries, especially the party's rights to determine for itself how its nominee standard bearers are selected."

The party wants SB 54 enjoined as unconstitutional under the First and 14th Amendments.

It is represented by Marcus Mumford.

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