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Judge Weighs Whether New Utah Party Can Run in Chaffetz Election

  • Associated Press

FILE - In this June 21, 2017, file photo, Jim Bennett speaks to reporters during a news conference at the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City. Bennett has sued to get on the ballot with his new political party in the special election to fill the seat of outgoing U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah.

Utah's accelerated special election to replace Jason Chaffetz in Congress doesn't seem to allow enough time for new political parties to get on the ballot, including one recently formed by the son of a former U.S. senator, a federal judge said Friday.

Judge David Nuffer said at a hearing that he's not ready to rule on whether he'll order state officials to include Jim Bennett, the son of the late U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, and his United Utah Party on the November ballot. But he said he intended to decide soon.

Bennett contends in lawsuit that Utah elections officials violated his constitutional rights by telling him they didn't have time to verify his new party, a centrist alternative in the GOP-dominated state. His father served 18 years in the U.S. Senate as a Republican before he was ousted in 2010.

Utah's elections office said there wasn't time to accommodate Jim Bennett and his party without shutting out other potential United Utah candidates or delaying the entire election.

Chaffetz made a surprise announcement May 18 that he was resigning at the end of June. Utah elections officials announced May 19 that those who wanted to run as political parties' nominees had one week to file their candidacies with the state, starting that day.

On the last day of the weeklong filing period, Bennett and his United Utah Party submitted documents to create the party and run Bennett as its first candidate.

Certification problem

The Utah lieutenant governor's office, which oversees elections, said it couldn't certify the party in time and couldn't allow a candidate to run as a party's nominee if the party didn't officially exist.

Nuffer said Friday that the special election timeline set by Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox didn't appear to offer enough time for a new political party to participate.

FILE - Then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz speaks during a town hall meeting, Feb. 9, 2017, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.
FILE - Then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz speaks during a town hall meeting, Feb. 9, 2017, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.

Assistant Attorney General David Wolf, who represents the lieutenant governor, said it typically takes about 30 days to certify a new political party and United Utah could have been on the ballot if it had started the process earlier.

Bennett and his lawyers pointed out that they couldn't have kick-started their nascent party sooner because they didn't know Chaffetz was resigning until Chaffetz made the announcement.

The judge seemed sympathetic to that argument.

"If what one has to do to get on the ballot is be a soothsayer, then that is a pretty high burden," Nuffer said.

He's expected to rule soon on whether Bennett should be included on the ballot, but the lawsuit isn't expected to derail the special election because Bennett isn't challenging the rest of the process.

Several lawsuits

It's one of several lawsuits that have been filed over the process to replace Chaffetz in Utah's 3rd Congressional District, which covers Salt Lake City's southeastern suburbs and desert towns in southeastern Utah.

Another potential candidate, Brigham Young University professor Chia-Chi Teng, sued the state because he wasn't allowed to file via video conference to run as a Republican candidate.

Teng is teaching in China this summer and said he couldn't return to Utah and file in person, as the law requires. A judge sided with state elections officials who denied his candidacy.

The primary election to replace Chaffetz is August 15, and the general election is November 7.

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