Is this how the kerfuffle over who gets a place on Republican ballots ends? After more than two years of lawsuits and arguments over a law that lets candidates get on the ballot by gathering signatures instead of submitting to a vote of convention delegates, does it all get solved with runoff elections?
Well, yes and no. The lawsuit the state GOP filed against the state may end if lawmakers pass a bill that allows for a runoff in the event four or more candidates are on a primary ballot and none of them gets more than 35 percent of the vote. (Under the old system, convention delegates would winnow lists of candidates to no more than two contenders.)
Should the bill become law, dropping the suit will be up to the party’s central committee. The bill solves one of the issues the state party has with a law that, in 2014, opened the party’s primaries to candidates who could bypass the convention by gathering enough signatures. With potentially hot races for U.S. Senate in 2018 and the governor’s
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office in 2020, the party’s nightmare would be to have several candidates on the primary ballot and the winner emerging with about 10 percent of the vote.
But that doesn’t mean the party is giving up on efforts to exert some control over who gets on the ballot in the first place.
Party Chairman James Evans wouldn’t put it that way. As he told me Monday, the important thing is transparency.
With that in mind, the party is considering a bylaw that would require all candidates, within 48 hours after the deadline for filing as a candidate, to file a disclosure that, first of all, asserts their party membership, then reveals whether they agree with each plank of the party’s platform.
Evans said it’s all about informing voters.
“They can fill out their disclosure saying that they don’t agree with any part of our platform,” he said. “It’s just so that our party members will know where they stand. We can’t force anybody to believe anything.”
The only people who would lose their party membership and have their candidacy challenged are those who don’t fill out a disclosure by the deadline.
But if they fill out their disclosure and note their disagreement with the platform, that will be duly posted on the party’s website (as will each candidate’s disclosure) and “further communicated to our party members,” he said.
While the party lost its lawsuit, it still could appeal. Evans said U.S. District Judge David Nuffer, in his ruling, made it clear the party had membership options “that I think are more potent for us.”
Evans is in a difficult position. A political party has a natural desire to ensure its candidates have some relation to the party and its core beliefs. On the national level, political parties are struggling with a similar issue. A democratic primary and caucus system has left them vulnerable to populist candidates who may not adhere to platforms or traditional positions on key issues.
However, in Utah, the Republican Party controls the vast majority of elected offices. Its success has made it, in some ways, more than just a party. Past efforts to control the slate of candidates solely through the caucus/convention process were too limiting.
In many races, Republicans face little or no opposition in the general election, adding significance to primary elections, and making them important for the health of democracy statewide.
The runoff bill, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, reinforces the notion that nothing about democracy is perfect. The 35 percent margin of victory may be challenged as the bill makes its way through the Legislature, but any higher threshold would increase the likelihood of costly runoffs. Some dissenting voices are calling for ballots that would allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, which then would be used to calculate an automatic runoff.
All of this is useful for people who believe a popular vote solution would be a panacea for tight presidential races.
But if it ends the party’s lawsuit and the struggle over whether to get on the ballot through a petition, that would be a big step, indeed.