United Utah Party takes Lt. Governor to court over special election to replace Chaffetz

SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal judge is deciding whether to force the state to allow a new political party to put its candidate on the November ballot in the special election to replace Jason Chaffetz.

"I think I'm going to get on the ballot!" Jim Bennett declared as he left federal court on Friday, following a hearing on the United Utah Party's lawsuit against Lt. Governor Spencer Cox.

The United Utah Party, which bills itself as a centrist alternative to Republicans and Democrats, sued after its attempts to become a registered political party were initially rebuffed. The state insists the upstart party has missed deadlines set by Governor Gary Herbert in the election.

"Certainly with the special election, timelines, deadlines are accelerated," Utah Elections Director Mark Thomas said.

Jim Bennett (center) and members of the United Utah Party and their lawyers leave federal court on July 14, 2017. (Image by Kevin Walenta, FOX 13 News)

In arguments before U.S. District Court Judge David Nuffer, the state said it was too late. The United Utah Party could have began the process to become a recognized political party in the state last November, but tried to do so only after Chaffetz announced he intended to resign.

"It was during the declaration of candidacy we started hearing that potentially they wanted to become a party," Thomas told reporters outside of court.

But the United Utah Party argued it is being shut out of the election process with the deadlines.

"We did this with the expectation that the first time we would be on the ballot is 2018. We had no idea Jason Chaffetz was not going to finish out his term when we started the conversations about this party," Bennett said. "So there was no sense of urgency to get ready for a special election we didn't know was going to happen."

Judge Nuffer focused on the timeline and deadlines set by the state. He expressed concern about "monolithic, one-party involvement in the decision making" for elections.

"It appears to me the position of the state is... this special election cannot accommodate a new political party," the judge said.

Judge Nuffer said he would try to make a decision soon, noting that more election deadlines are coming up.

Chaffetz, who resigned shortly after being elected to his second term, quit to go work for FOX News Channel. The race to replace him has drawn a large number of candidates. Republicans will have a primary between Tanner Ainge, Chris Herrod and John Curtis next month.