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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge on Friday rejected a request from Utah's Republican Party to block a new state law changing how political candidates are nominated.
The GOP has argued it does not have enough time to comply with the law in time for the 2016 elections. But U.S. District Judge David Nuffer said the party's internal roadblocks were not enough of a reason to halt the law.
The 2014 law gives political parties two paths to choosing candidates. One path would require a party to use primary elections. The other path preserves the state's longtime caucus and convention system by requiring any candidates emerging from nominating process to square off in a primary election against candidates who collect signatures.
If the law remains in place for next year's elections, supporters argue more moderate candidates would match up in primary elections against more hard-line candidates picked by the caucus system.
The Utah Republican Party maintains the law violates the party's constitutional right to determine how it picks its candidates.
James Evans, the Republican Party chairman, said after the court ruling Friday afternoon that his organization has decided its next steps. The party could appeal Nuffer's ruling and ask a federal appeals court to freeze the law. Republicans could also comply with the law by choosing one of the paths for nominations, but must do so by the fall.
Marcus Mumford, the GOP's attorney, argued in court that the party cannot choose either path. The party argued that it must change its internal rules to comply with the law, but its members are not willing to approve those changes.
Nuffer said the party can't claim it's harmed by the law just because its own process doesn't allow it to comply. The law offers the party two paths to pick its candidates, and the GOP couldn't demonstrate how either was an unconstitutional choice.
"As long as the rat can escape from the maze, it's not a trap," Nuffer said.
Evans said that if the party cannot persuade its members to change the organization's rules and comply by next year's election, the Republican Party would not appear on the ballot. Instead, its candidates would have to gather signatures on their own and appear as unaffiliated candidates, he said.
Evans said he was encouraged that the judge said Friday there are parts of the law could violate the party's constitutional rights, but those arguments would be settled later on in the lawsuit.
Utah's Democrats, significantly outnumbered by Republicans, have generally stayed out of the debate and considered it an internal GOP struggle. But on Friday, the Utah Democratic Party issued a statement welcoming Nuffer's ruling. Democrats, who had also used a caucus and convention system, said they're "ready and excited" for the changes under the law.
The 2014 law was a compromise between the Republican-controlled Legislature and Count My Vote, a group pushing to increase voter participation.
Without the compromise, Count My Vote planned to continue gathering signatures for an initiative petition that would have let voters decide to abandon the caucus system altogether.
Count My Vote argues the system is difficult for average people to participate in because it requires voters to attend meetings on a given night. When it's difficult for people to participate, that allows factions such as the tea party to advance extreme candidates instead of moderates, the group has argued.
Supporters of the caucus system argue it levels the economic playing field by forcing candidates to win over local delegates in person.
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