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Utah voters shun labels

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Guess how most Utah voters are registered: Republican or Democrat?

It's a trick question. The answer is neither. In fact, three of every five Utah voters are registered as "unaffiliated." But they can still vote in Utah's Feb. 5 presidential primaries (or in early voting now under way) but may have to jump through some extra hoops at the polls.

Also, currently registered Democrats or Republicans who might want to vote in the other party's primary — such as Republicans who figure Mitt Romney already has tied up the Utah GOP vote, so they want to vote in the tighter Democratic race — need to jump through other hoops by Tuesday and not wait until Election Day.

Tuesday is the deadline for people now registered with one party to switch to another (or new voters to register), and they must do so by filling out paperwork in person at their county clerk's office. (The "by-mail" deadline for that passed on Jan. 7.)

According to the Lieutenant Governor's Office, 1.04 million Utahns are registered as "unaffiliated," more than all those registered to other parties combined. It says another 538,305 are registered Republicans, 125,992 are Democrats and 1,427 are registered with the Constitution Party. No other parties are currently recognized by the state.

Jason Yocom, chief deputy Salt Lake County clerk, explains what unaffiliated voters must do on Election Day if they want to vote in one of the presidential primaries.

"If they show no party registration, they will be asked in which party primary they would like to participate. If they choose Democratic, they will just be given a ballot for that," he said. "If they choose Republican, that party requires that they fill out a form to affiliate with that party before they are given a ballot."

In short, unaffiliated voters can vote Democratic and still remain unaffiliated. But if they want to vote Republican, they must re-register at the polls as Republican.

Years ago, Utahns did not register by party. They could choose a ballot for either party primary. That changed after some Republican candidates charged they had been torpedoed by Democrats and independents seeking weaker GOP nominees. Also, some candidates prefer party registration because it allows obtaining lists of party faithful for easier, more targeted campaigning.

But independent-minded Utahns often have resisted registering by party anyway, with 60 percent of them still remaining unaffiliated. And complaints about closed party primaries are common.

"People don't like it. On Election Day, you would figure that most of the calls we get would be about where people need to go to vote, and we do get a lot of those. But we get more from people upset that primaries are closed," said Mark Thomas, office administrator for the lieutenant governor's office.

Todd Taylor, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, said his party does not force unaffiliated voters to register as Democrats "because we want our process to be as open as possible." Some observers have also said if unaffiliated voters vote Democratic in a primary, they may be more likely to do so in the general election.

Taylor notes that in the regular, non-presidential primaries in June, Utah Democrats allow anyone — Democrats, unaffiliated and Republicans — to vote Democratic. For the presidential primary, he said the national party wanted it limited to party members and unaffiliated voters.

He urges unaffiliateds to consider voting Democratic because, "Given that the Republican nomination in Utah (where Romney is far ahead in polls) is almost settled, this (Democratic primary) is where your vote will make the most difference."

State Republican Chairman Stan Lockhart said requiring unaffiliated voters who want to vote in a Republican primary to register Republican "is nothing new. It's been that way for years. ... Anyone can vote in our primary if they are unaffiliated or Republican, but they will need to register as Republican at the polls. We welcome unaffiliateds."

Taylor noted that Utah's large number of unaffiliated voters changes the way some candidates campaign here.

"Clearly, that's the point of TV ads by Obama and Clinton. If the primary were limited to registered Democrats, it would be cheaper to use targeted mailing or go door to door with personal contact. But they are trying to reach out," he said.

Thomas noted that the people who may feel the most left out on Election Day may be those registered with the Constitution Party. That party has no presidential primary itself. And its registered members cannot switch on Election Day to participate in one of the other primaries. They can only participate by re-registering for another party in person by Tuesday at their county clerk's office.

"Otherwise, there's essentially no reason for them to show up at the polls," Thomas said.

He also notes that some other parties recognized in the past in Utah — such as the Green or Personal Choice parties — are no longer certified by the state because they received too few votes in recent elections. People who were registered with them have been moved by officials into the ranks of the "unaffiliated."

E-mail: lee@desnews.com