Utah Republican Party leaders claimed victory Tuesday, believing the party has gutted an overhaul to state election law and found a way to keep out of the GOP those candidates who try to win office by gathering signatures to get on the ballot. Meanwhile, a federal judge indicated he will likely strike down a provision of the law that sought to open primaries, letting members of any party or unaffiliated voters cast ballots in any primary election they choose. “Honestly, that’s how I think I’m ruling,” U.S. District Judge David Nuffer said Tuesday during a three-hour hearing. Nuffer reasoned that forcing a party to accept votes from people who are not party members amounts to “forced association” and violates the organization’s First Amendment rights. He said to let the open primaries go forward, only to have the provision ruled unconstitutional later, would be like standing by and watching a wreck happen, then saying there should have been a guard. “I don’t want to let an election happen that is invalid,” Nuffer said.
The open-primary provision was the last piece remaining in the Republican Party’s and Constitution Party’s challenge to SB54, a compromise between legislators and Count My Vote, a group of influential Utah politicos who sought to do away with the parties’ system of letting a group of delegates select most nominees for office at party conventions.
Count My Vote contended the system put too much power in the hands of the delegates, who are often the most fervent partisans, producing candidates who are outside the Utah mainstream and disenfranchising huge numbers of voters.
The group sought a system of direct primaries, where voters could decide the party nominees, and gathered signatures to put the measure on the 2014 ballot. But while the initiative drive was underway, the group cut a deal with the Legislature, creating a two-track nominating process in which candidates seeking a spot on the primary ballot could either go through the convention or gather a required number of signatures.