Ten Things You Need to Know About the Utah Republican Party’s SB 54 Lawsuit

I am a life-long Republican who, as a state senator, voted for SB 54 last year.  I did so because I believed that the Count My Vote initiative would be successful by a wide margin, and SB 54 was the only option of preserving some elements of the caucus/convention system.

Having spent more than a decade as a member of the Utah Republican Party’s governing body, I have a pretty good understanding of its inner workings.  For that reason, I could not resist attending the preliminary injunction hearing in federal court last week.   Here are 10 things you need to know about the Utah Republican Party’s SB 54 lawsuit:

  1. Judge Nuffer was well prepared and understood the issues – which turned out to be bad news for the Republican Party.  Everyone in the courtroom could see that the judge was trying very hard to be fair to the Party.  In fact, he allowed the Party’s lawyer, Marcus Mumford, to argue about 85% of the time during a hearing that lasted more than four hours.
  2. Before the hearing, Judge Nuffer informed the Party that he expected it to cite legal precedent for its claim that its constitutional rights had been violated.  But despite repeated opportunities, the Party was unable to do so.
  3. The judge and all parties agreed that under SB 54, there are four potential paths to the ballot:  as a Registered Political Party (which is Count My Vote in its entirety), as a Qualified Political Party (which allows candidates to go through either a caucus/convention process or a signature gathering process – or both!), as an unaffiliated candidate (who would collect signatures) or as a write-in candidate (which amounts to certain death on the ballot ala Bill Freeze).
  4. Since SB 54 allows various paths to the ballot, the judge was able to easily distinguish the Party’s complaints about the new law from cases the Party cited from Idaho and California.  In other words, the Party took its best shot and missed.
  5. The Party lost in court last week – and lost big time.  With the loss, SB 54 will remain in effect for the 2016 election cycle and for the foreseeable future thereafter.
  6. James Evans is seriously downplaying the loss.  Unfortunately, the media accounts after the hearing were much more accurate than were the statements from the Party.   Since one of the factors to obtain an injunction is a “likelihood of success on the merits” of the case, Judge Nuffer’s decision can be interpreted to mean that he doesn’t expect the Party will prevail.
  7. The very best outcome that the Party can hope for at this point is to maybe exclude unaffiliated voters (voters who are not registered with any political party) from participating in future  Republican primaries.  But the Court won’t even consider that unless the Party opts to become a Qualified Political Party (QPP) under SB 54.  That’s all that’s on the table at this point.  The chance that the judge will strike down SB 54 in its entirety and allow the Party to return to the old system is less than 1%.
  8. James Evans is playing a dangerous game of chicken and has been for almost a year.  The most likely result is that there will be no state candidates on the ballot next year with the Republican label next to their names.
  9. Before the hearing, James Evans filed a sworn declaration with the Court.  He testified: “I can state with certainty that the party cannot adopt the monumental amendments required … to make it consistent with Senate Bill 54’s requirements in time to meet the deadlines imposed.”   But the Utah Democratic Party has already made the changes.  And the Utah Republican Party has already announced it intends to make similar changes to switch from a presidential primary to caucus next year.    The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that the Party cannot change in time because it simply doesn’t want to!
  10. The Utah Republican Party has until September 30 to notify the Lt. Governor’s office if it intends to participate in the 2016 election cycle as a Registered Political Party or a Qualified Political Party – or that it won’t participate at all.  Before that time, the Party will either elect a new Chair or re-elect James Evans to his second term.  Also, the county parties will collectively elect new representatives to the Party’s governing body.  In other words, the Party could have entirely different leadership prior to the September 30 deadline.
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