A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the state cannot force political parties to open their primaries to unaffiliated voters, a move that will allow the Utah Republican Party to continue to close its primaries and complicate a potential signature-gathering path to the primary ballot. U.S. District Judge David Nuffer signaled during a hearing last week that he would likely strike down the open-primary provision of SB54, as judges in other districts have repeatedly done. SB54 sought to increase voter participation in primaries by forcing the parties to allow the state’s 610,000 unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in the primary elections. But Nuffer said that encroaches on the party’s First Amendment right to association.
“While a state has the authority to regulate elections and even require that political parties hold a primary election … [the] state may not force a political party to allow unaffiliated voters in its primary election,” Nuffer wrote. “Such a requirement is a ‘severe’ burden on the political party’s First Amendment rights because it dilutes the party’s ability to determine its candidates.”
For example, the Constitution Party has only 4,000 members. Nuffer reasoned that, if the party was forced to open its primaries to the state’s 610,000 unaffiliated voters, those unaffiliated voters could easily overwhelm the party’s actual members and deny the party the ability to pick its own candidates.
However, Nuffer upheld a provision in SB54 that allows candidates to earn a spot on the primary ballot by gathering a requisite number of signatures, rather than being chosen by delegates at the party’s convention.