(CN) – The 10th Circuit on Tuesday upheld a disputed new provision of Utah election law that allows an alternative method for candidates to get on the ballot.
The three-judge panel upheld the constitutional legitimacy of Utah Senate Bill 54, which created an avenue for candidates to qualify for primaries by collecting signatures, flouting the desires of political parties which wanted to control the nomination process with their conventions.
“How could it not be true in a representative democracy such as ours that the state has a strong – even compelling – interest in ensuring that the governed have an effective voice in the process of deciding who will govern them?” Circuit Judge David Ebel wrote in for the majority. “On balance, then, the state interests in SB54 surely predominate over the minimal burdens imposed upon the Utah Republican Party.”
It was a 2-1 decision, with Ebel and Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero affirming and Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich in dissent.
The case was unusual in that it represented a factional war within Utah’s Republican Party. The law was passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature in March 2014, was signed into law by a Republican governor and implemented by Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, also a Republican.
But the Utah Republican Party filed a federal lawsuit soon after the law was passed. The Utah Democratic Party joined the suit, and the parties argued right to free association under the First and 14th Amendments was violated because the law dictates how they can nominate candidates.
“The (Utah Republican Party) argues that SB54 infringes on its First Amendment associational rights by forcing it to adopt a candidate-selection process different from that which it would prefer,” Ebel said.
This could result in a party nominating a candidate it does not like or who does not represent its values, the political parties said.
Ebel said the judges recognized the implications of the law on free association, but said those considerations had to be balanced by the constitutional considerations of the state to hold free and fair elections.
“These state interests constitute the very backbone of our constitutional scheme – the right of the people to cast a meaningful ballot,” Ebel said in the ruling.
In a lengthy dissent, Tymovich said the state failed to identify a compelling interest for making the change to the nomination process.
The bill was originally passed as a compromise between the traditional way of nominating candidates and the ballot initiative Count My Vote, which sought to eliminate the caucus party process entirely.
“We are pleased that the court ruled as we expected,” said Taylor Morgan, executive director of County My Vote. “SB54 is not only constitutionally and legally sound, it is strongly supported by the vast majority of Utahns in all political parties. Thanks to this important election reform, all Utah voters now have a voice in choosing candidates for elected office.”
Barring an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, candidates for state and federal office in Utah will have a dual path to office, winning 60 percent of the vote from either party caucus, being nominated for primaries through the party convention or receiving enough signatures to qualify for the ballot – giving candidates outside of the party apparatus a fair chance at qualifying.