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A federal judge will not strike down a provision in Utah election law that allows candidates to gather signatures to get on the primary ballot, ruling Wednesday that the signature thresholds are not unconstitutional because candidates have the option of seeking the nomination for office at the party's convention.

The Utah Republican Party had challenged the signature thresholds, arguing that the requirement that House candidates collect 1,000 signatures and Senate candidates gather 2,000 set an unrealistically high hurdle for candidates to clear.

In some instances — in part because Republicans do not allow unaffiliated voters to sign petitions — candidates have to get signatures from a third of the registered Republicans in some GOP districts and as many as 57 percent of registered GOP members in heavily Democratic districts.

On their own, the signature thresholds likely would have been unconstitutional, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer wrote in his opinion.

"The existence of an alternate path to the ballot is one of the most decisive factors in evaluating the practical effect of an election law," Nuffer wrote. "And as long as there is a clearly constitutional path to the ballot, an alternative method of ballot access is not unconstitutional unless it is 'wholly irrational.' "

Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans said the judge agreed the signature thresholds were unconstitutional, but Evans believes Nuffer didn't want to have to kick people off the ballot who had already gathered signatures.

"Judges are loath to remove anyone from the ballot, especially once the process has started. There's probably some wisdom in that, but to declare something is unconstitutional and still allow it to be there ... you can't have it both ways. It's either constitutional or it's not," Evans said. "I think that the thresholds, there's no question they're unconstitutional. The judge has chosen to rule not to strike it and, yes, we disagree with that, but there's more to the case and we think the heart of our case on the membership [eligibility] is what's going to be taken up next."

Rich McKeown, co-chairman of the Count My Vote group, said the courts have continuously upheld the legality of SB54 and the GOP should stop fighting the inevitable.

"We're very, very pleased with the way this is going, and it's a validation of what we've been saying all along," McKeown said. "I just think it's time for us to get moving forward and stop the conga line of lawsuits and for the Republican Party to start embracing it."

However, because candidates have another path to get on the ballot — trying to garner support from at least 40 percent of the delegates at the party convention to move on to a primary — the signature-gathering option only expands ballot access. The two, taken together, are not unconstitutional.

Nuffer's ruling resolves one piece of the complex series of lawsuits over SB54, the 2014 legislation that revamped state election law to provide for the signature-gathering route to the primary ballot.

The bill was a compromise between lawmakers and leaders of the Count My Vote movement, which argued that primaries would produce candidates who are more in line with mainstream Utahns than the convention process does.

The group had gathered signatures for a ballot initiative to replace the party conventions with primaries, but abandoned the effort after lawmakers passed legislation creating the two-track, hybrid process.

The Republican Party has challenged the constitutionality of SB54, and Nuffer has struck down one of the provisions of the bill that required the parties to allow unaffiliated voters to vote in party primaries and sign petitions for ballot access. There are more than 600,000 unaffiliated voters in Utah.

The Utah Supreme Court heard arguments this week on two other issues: The first is whether the law gives the candidate the option to decide whether to gather signatures, seek the nomination at convention or do both; the second is whether the party gets to choose which path candidates will take. The second is whether the GOP could lose its status as a qualified political party if it refuses to acknowledge candidates who gather signatures but do not go to the party convention.

The justices in arguments seemed to be inclined to see the law as giving the candidate the choice of how to seek the party's nomination and that they could not rule on whether the Republican Party should be disqualified until the party actually tries to have a signature-gathering candidate stricken from the ballot. A ruling from the high court is expected soon.

Nuffer has one more issue to resolve, as well. He has scheduled a hearing for April 15 to hear arguments on how much control the party has over who goes on the ballot.

The party argues that the law says a candidate has to be a member of the party. Recently, the Utah GOP has implemented new requirements to be deemed a member, including agreeing to seek the party's nomination through the convention process.

If the judge rules in the Republicans' favor, the party could seek to have candidates who pursued the signature-gathering route kicked off the June primary ballot.

Twitter: @RobertGehrke