SALT LAKE CITY — It looks like the Utah GOP and state elections officials are getting closer to another court battle over the issue of whether the party can stop candidates from gathering voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot.
Late last week, as the 2018 Legislature was ending without action on the issue, a pair of Republican candidates in the two congressional districts targeted by a small group of party leaders filed with the state to take the alternative ballot path.
Under the bylaw passed last month by the GOP's State Central Committee, Republicans running in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts were barred from gathering voter signatures as allowed under the law.
Republican Mary Burkett, who is challenging Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, in the 2nd Congressional District, said she's willing to help test the legality of the bylaw even if it means losing her membership in the Republican Party.
"I'm stepping forward and saying enough. I'll do both in my campaign. Let's bring this to a legal conclusion," she said. "I think I was just the right person in the right place at the right time."
Burkett, a member of the central committee, said she believes Republicans should choose their nominees through the traditional caucus and convention system that gives party delegates the power to put candidates on the general election ballot.
A candidate in a similar situation, Kevin Probasco, who is running for the 1st Congressional District seat held by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, did not immediately return a call for comment.
The two other members of Utah's all-Republican, four-member congressional delegation, Rep. John Curtis and Rep. Mia Love, signed up to gather voter signatures earlier this year. Their congressional districts are not affected by the bylaw change.
The Utah GOP has already battled the state over the 2014 law, known as SB54, that created the signature-gathering path to the primary ballot and lost in U.S. District Court, but is appealing the ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
State lawmakers failed to head off the latest issue with the party during the 2018 session, although they considered legislation that would have allowed Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican and the state's top elections official, to ignore the bylaw.
Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, the sponsor of HB485, said he understands that the faction of the central committee behind the bylaw change "intends to put forward straw man candidates to gather signatures so they can be disqualified."
He said the reason the bylaw was changed was to set up a situation that could be litigated.
An attorney, McKell said it's "disappointing to see such a small group of individuals bypass state law and seek power and control" while creating uncertainty about the upcoming election.
Phill Wright, one of the GOP leaders behind the bylaw change, said the only way the issue gets to court is if a candidate in the 1st or 2nd Congressional District is put on the ballot by the lieutenant governor as a result of gathering signatures.
Wright said both Burkett and Probasco automatically forfeited their membership in the GOP through the election by violating the bylaw prohibiting signature gathering but was unclear on whether they would be able to compete at the party convention.
"There's certainly some confusion out there," State Elections Director Justin Lee said. But he said the lieutenant governor's office plans to fulfill its job and "make sure candidates get on the ballot."
He said the state Republican Party registered last year with the state as a qualified political party, meaning it agreed to follow the law allowing candidates to gather signatures, compete at convention or both.
Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson, who has tried repeatedly to stop the party infighting over the dual path to the ballot, said Republicans are now in a "no man's land."
Anderson said he and other party officials are conducting "a thorough review of our constitution and bylaws to make sure everything we do does not jeopardize our candidates for this election cycle."
He said as far as he's concerned, nothing has changed since the party agreed last year to abide by the requirements of a qualified political party.
"We're going to follow those rules throughout this election cycle to make sure there's Republicans on the ballot and our candidates are protected according to what they thought the rules were going into this election season," Anderson said.
All the turmoil surrounding the issue isn't helping the party achieve what should be its main goal, electing Republicans, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
Karpowitz said backers of the bylaw may feel strongly, but "when the political maneuvering creates this level of confusion and ultimately frustration even within your political party, that's a bad situation overall."