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In our opinion: SB 54: Time for the GOP to drop its legal challenge

FILE - Members of the Utah House of Representatives open their 2017 session on Monday, Jan., 23, 2017.
FILE - Members of the Utah House of Representatives open their 2017 session on Monday, Jan., 23, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

GOP leadership in Utah should drop its legal challenge to SB54, the legislation which set up a dual-path to get on the party's primary ballot.

When the state legislature passed SB54 in 2014, it was intended to blunt the momentum of Count My Vote, a citizen’s initiative that would have placed a referendum on the ballot to eliminate Utah’s caucus system that allowed narrow party interests to exert an outsized influence on the candidates nominated for public office.

While there is nothing untoward about a party picking its own nominee, in Utah, where the Republican Party remains dominant, many felt the old caucus system gave narrow party interests too much control over who was elected.

SB54 didn’t totally eliminate that system, but it provided alternative access to the primary ballot by means of gathering signatures instead of merely winning delegates at caucuses.

So far, most candidates in statewide races have concurrently pursued both routes to getting on the ballot, although that seems to be changing. For example, Sen. Orrin Hatch has announced his intention to seek re-election, but he has made no moves to organize for next year’s convention, which suggests he may be bypassing the caucuses in a manner that GOP leaders fear.

Now that the race for the Republican Party State Chair is heating up, SB54 has once again become a central matter of debate within the party, especially the expensive and seemingly quixotic legal battle regarding the law’s constitutionality.

It’s no use recounting the Republican Party’s reasons for opposing SB54, as those reasons have been repeatedly litigated in the courts, where the GOP has consistently lost. But, its unwillingness to accept this reality has cost the party coffers dearly.

The ongoing fight against SB54 has laden Utah's GOP with hundreds of thousands in unpaid debts. Numerous donors are rightly upset about the party leadership’s recalcitrance on a matter that appears increasingly futile.

So far, the Republican Party’s opposition to SB54 hasn’t represented a threat to its ability to win elections. But, polls have continually demonstrated that Utah favors scrapping the caucus system altogether.

The GOP would be wise to embrace SB54 as a fine compromise that prevented Count My Vote from getting on the ballot, where it would likely have succeeded.

In early February, Utah's GOP wisely voted to “end its federal appeal of Utah State Senate Bill 54.” Then, in a remarkable about-face, three weeks later GOP leadership said the party would actually continue their SB54 legal challenge.

At some point, the party needs to chart a course that looks to the future. Even if they win this current legal battle, there is little reason to believe that Utahns, including the rank-and-file of the state's GOP, will suddenly endorse a reversion back to an antiquated caucus system which polling shows is largely out of favor.