With all the controversy within the Utah Republican Party over proposed changes to the party’s nomination process, one thing is for certain: the rules must be changed by September. In a lawsuit in federal court, the party contended that it would not be able to make the necessary changes in time. The failure for the state GOP to fully comply with SB54 could mean that the party would not be allowed access to the ballot in 2016.
Dr. Michael Smith, professor of political science at Emporia State University, says that for a major party to fail to gain ballot access would be something not seen before in American politics.
“I can’t think of a time when the major parties have [lost ballot access]. Now, there’s tremendous variation in third party access to the ballot; all the way from Oklahoma where it’s almost impossible for a third party to get on the ballot to Oregon where elections regularly have six, seven, eight candidates for president, many of which a lot of people have never heard of. For the Democrats or the Republicans, not to be on the ballot, I’ve not heard of that before.”
If the Republican Party is denied a place on the ballot, candidates who would normally run with the GOP may choose to try to run as independents. Smith says that the situation would not harm incumbents, but could hinder the aspirations of newer candidates. He says that certain incumbents have been able to be re-elected through write-in campaigns.
“The classic example there is a few years ago when a Tea Party candidate won the Republican primary for Senate in Alaska against the incumbent Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski was actually able to hang on to the seat as an independent candidate with a write-in campaign, which is really an amazing story especially when your name is Murkowski. She did it and she’s in the Senate today. So, I would think that incumbents that have pretty solid name recognition and who are conventionally understood to be Republicans even if they don’t have the ‘r’ next to their name on the ballot would be fine. Now, some newer, up-and-coming candidates would have a little bit of a challenge trying to establish in a Republican state that, ‘Hey, I really am a Republican,’ because they wouldn’t have that next to their name on the ballot.”
While high profile races may not be significantly altered were the GOP to be denied ballot access, state and local races could be effected. Smith says that the situation could contribute to a phenomenon known as “roll-off.”
“What I would really worry about is what’s called ‘roll-off,’ which is where people vote in the top elections for things like governor, U.S. Senate, and maybe Congress but then they just don’t vote in the other ballot races. They don’t vote for state rep, state senator, and some of these other down-ballot races. I think that’s likely to be the biggest problem that you have. Roll-off is a problem in every election but the party labels really help to manage it. You may have a lot of people that just don’t know who to vote for without those party labels.”
At a State Central Committee meeting on Wednesday, a secret ballot poll showed that Republican leaders favored having all potential candidates sign a statement of adherence to the party platform. Party leaders also favored holding interviews with potential candidates. Smith says that certain factions within the GOP could benefit from the rule changes.
“Electoral rules are so tremendously important. If the Democrats selected their nominees for president the same way the Republicans did, Hillary Clinton would have been the Democratic nominee in 2008. That’s if everybody who voted in those primaries voted exactly the same way. Simply the change in rules would have made Hillary the winner. I would imagine that savvy [Republican] party operatives and also savvy Tea Party activists would be looking at the rules and saying, ‘Which ones benefit us?’”
Rule changes must be approved by the party’s state convention in August.