SALT LAKE CITY — While there’s no official count of how many Utah voters switched their party affiliation by last Friday’s deadline to vote in the Republican gubernatorial primary election on June 30, newly released numbers appear to make it clear that’s happening.
“We can’t definitively say how many people are switching. I mean, there’s no question, just looking at the numbers this morning ... every single party has lost active voters since the first of May except the Republican Party,” state Elections Director Justin Lee said. “I think there’s certainly some credibility to the idea that people are switching.”
Since April, the number of active registered Republican voters in the state has jumped by nearly 74,000, while the number of Democrats has dropped by nearly 9,800, and the number of unaffiliated voters is down by more than 43,600. During the same time period, the number of active voters in the state has gone up by just over 19,300.
The numbers released Monday are expected to be updated again Wednesday, Lee said, as county clerks continue to process voter registration changes made before the deadline Friday.
After the primary, Lee said he expects to take a closer look at crossover voting, including how many Republicans change their affiliation postelection. But he said a quick look at voter registrations in 2016 showed the state “didn’t have anything near these numbers in terms of new registrants or changes in party affiliation.”
Utahns “are certainly paying attention to this election,” Lee said. Especially the four-way race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination between Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.
Sheri Hohmann, a “very staunch Democrat” from Salt Lake City, said she decided to switch parties after “realizing that whoever wins the GOP primary is almost certainly going to be the next governor and so this is really the only way that I feel like I have a say.”
Hohmann, who provides education support at a clinical testing laboratory, said she’s never voted for a Republican before and plans to switch back to being a Democrat after the primary is over.
“I’m sure I will vote for the Democrat in the general election, but I’m sure the Democrat won’t win,” she said.
Democrats have already selected Chris Peterson, a University of Utah law professor, as their gubernatorial nominee but it’s been 40 years since Utahns elected a Democratic governor. Jim Dabakis, a former chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, said recently that’s why he registered as a Republican and urged others to do the same.
For Hohmann, who said she persuaded her husband, Brett Markum, to make the same party switch, the decision wasn’t easy.
“There was something about that that has kind of made me hesitate. But for this election, it just seemed really important,” she said, especially after watching last week’s final gubernatorial primary debate. She said she supports Huntsman because he “did a pretty good job” before as governor.
“My intentions are so I have a voice, not so I can sabotage the Republican Party. That’s not my intent,” Hohmann said, adding that she might not have changed her affiliation if the four GOP candidates were more alike in their political ideology.
“I definitely feel like some are better than others and are more closely aligned with my viewpoints and my ideals,” she said.
Huntsman’s campaign ran advertising encouraging voters to meet the June 19 deadline to register as Republican in order to vote in the primary, closed by the party to nonmembers of the GOP, including unaffiliated voters. Unaffiliated voters in counties with drive-up Election Day voting can still choose then to affiliate as Republicans.
“We’re encouraged that people want to participate,” Huntsman’s campaign manager, Lisa Roskelley, said Monday,
She said the campaign’s intent was to ensure those who intend to vote for a Republican in November also were able to cast a primary ballot. “Our focus was on those that typically vote for a Republican,” she said. “Their mindset is generally aligned with the values of the party.”
Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said he believes much of the increase in the Republican ranks is coming from unaffiliated voters deciding to participate, as well as growth from new voters. He said the number of Democrats who have switched parties for the primary, even if it reaches 10,000 voters, shouldn’t alter the outcome.
“There is some,” Brown said of the Democratic crossover. “But I don’t think that it’s going to be a number that is large enough to make much of a difference. So I believe that in the end, Republicans are going to decide who represents the Republican Party.”
Others in the GOP aren’t happy to see new party members who don’t share their beliefs.
Wright’s running mate, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, told the Deseret News that Democrats should be trying to attract more appealing candidates “instead of piddling around with the Republican primary. Doing it this way ... the best you can call it is dishonorable. It really is a slimy way of doing things.”
Bishop was the state GOP chairman when the decision was made to close primaries to nonparty members in the late 1990s. Democrats usually hold open primaries, although because of an error in a filing with the state, only unaffiliated voters can vote along with Democrats in the limited number of contested races.
“Big deal. That’s their choice,” Bishop said of Democrats holding open primaries. “If Republicans want it to be a Republican-only process, that is their choice. And if Republicans win, it’s because we have better candidates and better messages.”
He said the only reason Democrats are attempting to “pervert the process” is to help advance a candidate, although he stopped short of saying Huntsman was part of the effort. “That’s inherently wrong,” Bishop said, promising that if he and Wright are elected, they will work to change the candidate nomination system.
Hughes, seen as a target of the effort because of his conservative views, has been especially vocal about voters switching to the GOP for the primary, saying recently that “tactics to manipulate elections from people that do not see themselves as Republicans are akin to voter fraud.”
But his campaign manager, Greg Hartley, said Monday Hughes will ultimately benefit from the push.
“While other campaigns have focused on getting Democrat voters to cross over to vote for their more moderate candidate, we have focused on registering new voters and updating registrations for inactive Republican voters. We believe that the effort to have Democrats cross over will unite conservatives behind the Hughes-Iverson ticket,” Hartley said.
Cox, whose office oversees the election, was upbeat about the new voter registration numbers.
“The lieutenant governor happily welcomes Utahns to the Republican Party and hopes they will stay involved after the primary election. He is encouraged by the many new primary voters who are supportive of his proven leadership and dedication to Utah and our future,” Cox spokeswoman Heather Barney said.
She said, “When newly affiliated voters carefully look at the issue and the leadership the lieutenant governor provides, we are confident they will make a wise choice for Utah.”