R (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Republicans may not appear on the ballot in Utah this year because of a change in the bylaws of the state’s GOP State Central Committee.

The change to the party’s rules disallows candidates to run as a Republican in some races if they gathered signatures to qualify to be on the ballot. Proponents of the rule change argue signature gathering weakens the influence of state delegates and interferes with the Party’s right to choose its nominees.

The rule, however, runs afoul of state law on the grounds the Utah GOP filed to operate as a “qualified political party” and as such, the law requires the party to accept candidates who gather signatures.

Lawmakers attempted to pass a fix-it bill that would allow the GOP to kick out candidates who gathered signatures and its status as a qualifying political party maintained. But while it passed the House of Representatives, the state Senate took no action on the issue before it expired at midnight on Thursday.

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Republican Rep. Mike McKell, a sponsor of the fix-it bill, HB 485, admits the state GOP broke the law by making the change.

“It’s clear they [Central Committee members] made an effort to break the law with their bylaw change,” McKell said, which could lead to lawsuits to revoke the GOP’s qualified political party status. That, in turn, could decertify the party, or lead it to be declared a “registered political party,” which under law allows only those candidates who gather signatures to appear on the ballot.

McKell’s bill sought to solve problems by making clear that once a party files as a qualified political party, the party has no power to change midstream in an election cycle.

McKell also warned of possible punishment by the state if the GOP tries to implement its new rule.

And, of course, Democrats are crying foul and calling on the state’s Republican Lieutenant Governor, Spencer Cox, to strip the state’s GOP of its qualified political party status.

Alex Cragun, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, said Friday that Cox “cannot pick and choose which laws he can enforce,” and should now move to strip the GOP of its qualified political party status. “They can choose whether to violate the law, but they have to face the consequences.”

Cragun said Democrats are finding it easier to recruit candidates this year with “the Republicans ready to shoot themselves in the foot,” and he and other party officials tell potential candidates “you might not have an opponent in November.”

Republicans should be very worried that this could be the case. The GOP Central Command deliberately put every Republican candidate in the state at risk.

This battle of wills will likely end up in court. In the meantime, McKell is urging all candidates to gather signatures regardless of whether they decide to run via the caucus-convention route.