Tom Smart, Deseret News
"I Voted" stickers on Utah's primary day at the Anderson-Foothill Library branch Tuesday, June 26, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — Are primary elections strictly a political party function, or should the state continue the practice of allowing people to declare party affiliation at the polls so they can participate?

Members of the Utah Senate were divided on the issue during debate on HB262 Thursday. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, argued that the practice has not been abused and should become a permanent part of state law. The practice has been allowed under law with sunset provisions.

Weiler, Senate sponsor of the bill, said the practice should be allowed to enable more people to participate in selecting their leaders.

"We all know in this state that the winner of the primary becomes de facto winner of the election," said Weiler, former chairman of the Davis County Republican Party and a vice chairman of the Utah Republican Party.

Others, however, argued that primary elections are a party activity. Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said she is troubled by low voter turnout rates in Utah.

"I do not think that means we should dilute our process," Dayton said.

Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said he has been a candidate for municipal and state offices. He prefers more involvement by voters than less, he said.

"The more people involved in the decision-making process, the better that decision is," Vickers said.

But Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said primary races differ from general elections.

"Maybe we're forgetting what the primary is about. The primary is not an election. It's part of political party nominating process," Stephenson said.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he believes parties should select their candidates.

"I hate this bill. Hate (it)," Thatcher said. "Political parties are where people who share common goals and ideology come together and work together to further their agendas."

While voting for the bill, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, reminded those in the Senate chambers that all Utahns "including members of this body are encouraged to vote in Democratic primaries."

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, advanced to a final reading in the Senate.