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The Senate gave preliminary approval Monday to a constitutional amendment that could overturn a new law to change how parties choose their nominees.
The Senate voted 17-12 to send SJR2 to a final vote later this week but that was three votes short of the two-thirds majority (20 of 29 members) that it would need eventually to pass and be sent to the House, and perhaps eventually to voters for a decision.
Its sponsor, Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said the amendment would ask voters "the question: should a party's rights be infringed upon." He said the amendment says "parties should be able to decide under their own terms and circumstances how their candidate goes to a ballot."
Last year, legislators passed SB54 as a compromise with supporters of the Count My Vote ballot initiative to allow candidates to qualify for a primary in two different ways.
They now may qualify by collecting enough signatures, similar to a direct primary sought by Count My Vote. Or they can qualify through the traditional caucus-convention system, which parties favor. The Utah Republican Party has challenged the new law in court, saying it infringes on its rights, and the Constitution Party signed onto the lawsuit Monday.
Count My Vote organizers agreed to withdraw their ballot initiative last year when SB54 passed. They charge that some Republicans are trying to go back on their deal now.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said supporting the constitutional amendment does not violate the deal.
"I don't think this [violates] any agreement. It simply lets the people decide. I suspect that maybe the people will reject this," he said.
However, Hillyard said another bill by Jenkins, SB43, would violate the deal with Count My Vote by delaying the new law from taking effect until after the 2016 general election. "I can't vote for that."
SB43 is scheduled for debate on Tuesday at 10:45 a.m.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, author of SB54, said the constitutional amendment would allow parties to trump the rights of the state by essentially ordering it to conduct primaries when and how they please at taxpayer expense.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said the GOP is now arguing the state cannot tell it how to choose candidates, but he presented a list of laws going back to 1994 that do just that. "Our state code has been telling the state parties what they shall do to get on the ballot for at least 21 years."
Despite his objections, Weiler voted to advance the bill Tuesday "because I'm not opposed to the people voting. But I can't vote without explaining the hypocrisy" of lawmakers, because "we didn't want people voting last year because we were afraid" they would support Count My Vote's proposal for a direct primary.