SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A judge has upheld a new political nominating system that allows candidates in Utah to bypass the political party caucus and convention systems in favor of gathering voter signatures instead — dealing a defeat to the state GOP.
U.S. District Judge David Nuffer’s ruling Friday evening comes a week before the Utah Republican Party is set to choose candidates for Congress, governor and other offices at its convention.
Nuffer said the changes don’t interfere with the state GOP’s constitutional rights, and is a legitimate action by the state to manage elections.
The Utah Republican Party sued after a law was passed in 2014 and created the new system, saying it’s not right for the state to dictate how political parties operate.
Nuffer’s decision is the same conclusion reached by the Utah Supreme Court, which recently decided the law wasn’t too heavy-handed and that requiring major parties to accept signature-gathering candidates doesn’t go too far in controlling how they operate.
The state’s high court weighed in earlier this month after Nuffer asked for the justices’ opinion.
Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans said it wasn’t the decision he hoped for, but said it’s too soon to know if his organization will appeal.
“For now, we’ll work with the rules as they are and work for a successful 2016,” Evans said. “We asked for constitutional clarity and we got it.”
Gov. Gary Herbert, who is collecting signatures and competing in the convention in his bid to be re-elected, appreciates a ruling that helps make clear the parameters and rules to win the nomination, said campaign spokesman Marty Carpenter.
“The process to pursue the nomination has had a significant lack of clarity,” Carpenter said.
The 2014 law came after a group of mostly moderate, well-funded Republicans pushed for changes to the caucus system following the surprise tea-party-fueled defeat of longtime GOP Sen. Bob Bennett. He was replaced by Sen. Mike Lee in 2010.
They said the nominating system favored more extreme candidates.
Caucuses and conventions require participants to attend meetings, something that can be difficult for voters who may not have flexible schedules or be willing to sit through the hour-long gatherings. Supporters of the measure say that creating a signature-gathering route to the ballot would give more people a chance to weigh in on how candidates are chosen.
The nominating process is especially important in deep-red Utah, where the GOP candidate usually wins the general election in races outside the Democratic base in Salt Lake City.
But Republicans argued that it’s not right for the state to dictate how political parties operate. They said the caucus system holds politicians accountable to voters, and the party shouldn’t be forced to put candidates on their ballot who skip that process.
The issue spilled into the gubernatorial debate this week, when Republican challenger Jonathan Johnson questioned Herbert’s decision to seek the nomination through both signature-gathering and the caucus and convention system. Herbert said he was gathering signatures to push people to the caucuses. Johnson acknowledged that he planned to collect signatures, but he opted not to after visiting with rural state residents who told him the caucuses ensure they have a voice.
This story has been corrected to show the ruling affects other political parties, not just Republicans.