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Election law changes spark friction at GOP meeting

There was friction Saturday among members of the Utah Republican Party's governing body over how to comply with a controversial law changing the candidate nominating process that they're challenging in court.
There was friction Saturday among members of the Utah Republican Party's governing body over how to comply with a controversial law changing the candidate nominating process that they're challenging in court.
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SANDY — There was friction Saturday among members of the Utah Republican Party's governing body over how to comply with a controversial law changing the candidate nominating process that they're challenging in court.

The GOP's State Central Committee meeting at the Salt Lake Community College's Sandy campus started with a closed session with the party's legal counsel that lasted 1 ½ hours.

Afterward, a third of the 15 agenda items dealing with the details of the party's caucus and convention system for choosing candidates to represent the party were scrapped.

Debate erupted over several of the remaining proposals, including an amendment to the party's constitution stating that candidates with enough support at the party's convention "shall proceed to the general election."

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said that claim was "dishonest" under SB54, the compromise reached between lawmakers and supporters of the Count My Vote initiative to replace the caucus and convention system with a direct primary.

The law, in effect for the 2016 election, allows candidates to earn a spot on the primary election ballot by gathering signatures instead of competing for the support of delegates at a party convention.

The GOP has sued the state over SB54, but has been moving to comply with the law since losing a bid for a preliminary injunction earlier this year and facing the possibility there would be no Republicans on the 2016 ballot.

Chris Herrod, a former state representative, drew applause by challenging Weiler. Herrod has previously called for the party to throw out Republican candidates who decide to bypass the caucus and convention system.

"Too often we just lay down when somebody attacks us," Herrod said, urging the committee members from around the state to stand up to lawmakers and others on the issue.

"I don't know about you, but I'm tired of caving. I'm tired of giving little tiny increments to the government when we need to stand. If not now, then when? And if not you, then who? I believe this needs to be in there."

The constitutional amendment passed, but a separate proposal to label a candidate selected at the convention the party's nominee failed. The final say on that and other issues will come at the GOP state convention Aug. 15.

There was also concern raised Saturday over a proposal that would have spelled out membership in the GOP "is open to any resident of the state of Utah who registers to vote as Republican."

The proposed bylaw change also stated there would be "no other requirement" to be recognized as a member of the Republican Party or to run for "any office within the party structure."

The sponsor of that proposal, Michelle Scharf, of Layton, expressed her frustration over being pushed to refer it for further study, calling the committee "dysfunctional" with "opinions all over the place" on what the party should be doing.

"This is a sad day. I don't understand what is so difficult about making sure that we cast a wider net and that we clarify that our intentions of this body is we support anybody who is going to check a box," Scharf said.

Utah GOP Chairman James Evans told her there wasn't opposition to that point, but legal counsel wanted to make sure her proposal only applied to party members, not to Republican candidates.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who sat through the closed portion of the meeting, described it as "a good example of how Republicans come together" in his remarks to the committee.

The governor told the Deseret News he could not discuss the specifics of the closed session when asked if he believed the party was on track to comply with the law. But he said the process going forward for the party "is one of unification."

Herbert said while he supports SB54, he "would prefer that everybody went through the caucus and convention system to be vetted" as he plans to do as a candidate for governor next year.

The committee also approved a resolution encouraging public officials in Utah to "nullify federal overreach" on issues including marriage, property rights, education and health.

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsPolitics