Utah Judge Strikes Down Open Primaries; Says Party Rights Trump Voter Rights

U.S. District Judge David Nuffer ruled Wednesday that Utah cannot force political parties to allow non-members (e.g. unaffiliated voters) to participate in “their” primary elections, striking down the open primaries provision in SB54.

“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.”

As previously reported on IVN, Nuffer indicated last week that this was how he was going to rule, so the decision didn’t come as much of a surprise.

“The issue concerns the primary system created under SB54, a law that passed in 2014 as a compromise between those who wanted to completely abolish the old closed caucus and convention system (CCS) and those who wanted to open the election process to more voters,” Chad Peace explains.

“Most simply, SB54 provided two avenues for a candidate to get on the partisan primary election ballot: (1) by winning a qualified party’s private and closed caucus vote, or (2) by gathering a sufficient number of signature petitions. If a candidate is not from a ‘qualified’ political party, their only option is to gather the requisite number of signatures.”

The open primaries provision would have allowed 610,000 unaffiliated voters in Utah to participate in primary elections — the first integral stage of the voting process. The Utah Republican Party, along with the Constitution Party, led the challenge to overturn the law.

“The issue was whether the state can force a political party to associate with others. That’s what we got resolved,” Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans said. “The state simply overstepped its constitutional authority there.”

But what about the issue of whether the state can force voters to associate with a private organization in order to have equal and meaningful participation in all integral stages of the voting process? This is a question that organizations like the Independent Voter Project (IVP) brought before a federal court in New Jersey.

Part of a coalition of reform groups and individual plaintiffs, IVP challenged the closed partisan primary system in New Jersey, arguing that it gives exclusive control of an integral stage of the voting process to the Republican and Democratic parties. According to the lawsuit, this violates an individual voter’s First Amendment right to not associate with a political party and his or her Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

“Eventually, reformers are likely to have their day in court,” Peace writes. “At some point, the United States Supreme Court will need to decide the fundamental question: ‘Do elections serve people, or parties?’”

Nuffer left the remainder of the law intact, including provisions that allow candidates to gather signatures to get on the primary ballot without going through a party convention or caucus. The state has indicated that it does not intend to file a response to the judge’s ruling, but did reserve the right to appeal.

Read the full decision:

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