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In our opinion: Election law compromise best course for Utah

Members of House of Representatives meet during the final day of the Utah Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 8, 2018.
FILE - Members of House of Representatives meet during the final day of the Utah Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 8, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals handed defenders of Utah’s antiquated political caucus system another blow this week, ruling 2-1 that the state law allowing candidates to get on the ballot via a petition as well as through the traditional caucus/convention system is constitutional.

That keeps the losing streak intact. State GOP leaders have lost every court challenge to that state law, including at the Utah Supreme Court and now at the federal appeals court level.

To continue their crusade, either through petitioning for a full circuit court hearing or by appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, potentially would cost millions in addition to the expenses the Republican Party already has incurred. Prudence, not to mention good common sense, argues for them to drop the legal challenges and acknowledge that the law allowing two ways to get on a ballot, known as SB 54, is here to stay.

SB 54 was a compromise measure between those who backed an initiative doing away with the caucus/convention system entirely and those who wanted to maintain that system as the only way to select party candidates. The compromise allows candidates to reach the ballot through a petition process as well as, or in spite of, the caucus system.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said that compromise “strikes an appropriate balance” that protects the state’s interests and the party’s ability to express preferences.

State party chairman Rob Anderson has said he will recommend accepting the decision and dropping the suit. The party’s central committee, however, may take a harder line, as it consistently has since SB 54 became law.

Committee members recently passed a bylaw that would expel any candidate for the 1st or 2nd Congressional Districts who seeks to get on the ballot through a petition. That rule now appears to be in violation of this court ruling.

Frankly, Utahns deserve closure in this matter.

The compromise has served Utahns well. It allowed former Provo Mayor John Curtis a place on the primary ballot, despite a defeat at the hands of convention delegates. He defeated the convention’s candidate and eventually was elected to Congress.

The caucus and convention system empowers the more extreme elements of a party — those who are motivated to organize caucus attendees and stand for election as delegates. Under Utah’s convention system, a candidate needs the support of 60 percent of delegates to avoid a primary altogether.

As a result, more moderate voices are discouraged from seeking office. Polls have shown convention nominees often do not represent the views of rank-and-file party members.

Because the Republican Party largely dominates politics in Utah, its candidates sometimes go unopposed in the general election, putting greater emphasis on how candidates are selected.

At the moment, two initiative drives are seeking the signatures required to access ballots in November. One would preserve the dual-track method for nomination. The other would re-enshrine the caucus/convention system as the only avenue.

Court decisions and recent elections ought to make it clear that the SB 54 compromise is the best course for future political involvement in Utah. If the state GOP would accept that and drop its challenges, the initiatives would become moot and Utahns would be better served.