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Bill calling for runoff elections may end GOP's legal battle with state

FILE: Voters listen during the Utah Republican Caucus at Brighton High School in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, March 22, 2016.
FILE: Voters listen during the Utah Republican Caucus at Brighton High School in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, March 22, 2016.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The sponsor of a 2014 law that provided an alternative to the state's caucus and convention system for selecting party nominees is hoping new legislation will finally end a Utah Republican Party legal battle with the state.

"As a state, we need to have closure on our election process," said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. "We take that very seriously. We'd like to find a resolution to the disagreements."

So Bramble, the sponsor of the controversial law that was challenged in court by the state GOP, has come up with a new bill that would settle the party's concern over what happens if no primary candidate receives a majority of the vote.

Known as SB54, the law passed to stop the Count My Vote initiative allows candidates to bypass the party's caucus and convention nomination process and gather voter signatures to guarantee a place on the primary ballot.

That means there can be more than just two candidates on the ballot, so a primary election could be won with less than 50 percent of the vote. Options that have been discussed included sending such races back to the party to decide.

But Bramble said his new bill, SB114, would require a runoff election — held by mail to save money and time — between the top two vote-getters in a race of more than three candidates if no one receives at least 35 percent of the vote.

The bill is set to be heard at 2 p.m. Monday by the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee. Bramble said the intent is to "get the bill to the floor as quick as we can."

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said Senate Republicans have discussed the bill and "conceptually, this is what the caucus would like to see happen."

And Senate Democrats also want to see the issue resolved, Senate Minority Assistant Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said.

Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who will serve as the House sponsor of the bill, said he sees the value of a runoff election as giving political parties the opportunity for "coming together behind a candidate."

McCay said the bill has been talked about for more than a year, so he believes it has a lot of support.

The Utah GOP's State Central Committee is set to consider the issue on Feb. 4. Last August, party leaders approved a resolution promising to drop the legal battle over SB54 if plurality was handled "to the satisfaction" of the committee.

The GOP took the state to court over the law, claiming it compromised its control over candidate nominations. The party lost its case in federal district court last spring, but has kept open the possibility of an appeal.

Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said the central committee will discuss the Legislature's proposed solution at its upcoming meeting.

"I suspect that some of our members are going to have some difficulty, but overall, as the governing body, we have to look at what’s in the best interests of the Republican Party," Evans said.

He said the central committee will also consider a party bylaw change requiring would-be GOP candidates to submit a statement of their stands on platform issues within 48 hours of filing for office or face losing their membership in the party.

Evans said Republicans want to find "a solution that sufficiently protects the interests of the party and its ability to ensure that we put forth candidates that reflect the values of our platform."