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Should Utah voters who switch parties to vote in a primary have to stay put?

Lawmaker wants to stop voters who ‘jump in and jump out’

Patrick Kilbourn drops off his mail-in ballot at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City in this Aug. 13, 2019 file photo.
Patrick Kilbourn drops off his mail-in ballot at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Aug. 13, 2019.
Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — Efforts to encourage Democratic and unaffiliated voters to become Republicans so they can vote in the upcoming GOP gubernatorial primary have some state lawmakers scrambling to find ways to make party switches tougher in the future.

“My idea is, if you come, you’ve got to stay awhile,” said Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, who is proposing a bill for the 2021 Legislature that would require voters changing political affiliations to remain members of their new party for at least six months.

Also being considered, he said, is a ban on changing parties six months before a primary. The deadline for such a change used to be 30 days before a primary, but thanks to election law changes made by the 2020 Legislature, voters now have until 11 days before the election.

Party affiliation in the June 30 election is key because Republicans have chosen to close their primaries to nonparty members. Democrats usually hold open primaries, but an error filing paperwork for the state late last year will limit participation in the June primary to only Democrats and unaffiliated voters.

A former Utah Democratic Party chairman, Jim Dabakis, announced recently he’s registered as a Republican to vote in the governor’s race while one of the four GOP candidates, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., is urging voters to ensure they sign up with the party “to make your vote count in June.”

While Republicans will choose Huntsman, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes or former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright as their nominee in the primary, Democrats have already decided on University of Utah law professor Chris Peterson as their candidate in November.

Snider decried what he called “gamesmanship” as hurting political parties that count on members sharing similar values and spending months sifting through candidates, starting with caucus meetings where delegates are elected to attend nominating conventions held months before a primary.

“Be part of the party and make it better. But don’t jump in and jump out,” Snider said. “When we mock it, we say it doesn’t matter and you don’t have to participate, you can just become a Republican for the day and vote so that one person doesn’t become governor tomorrow, that doesn’t benefit anybody.”

Snider said he’s endorsed Cox in the governor’s race but would be happy with either Hughes or Wright as the GOP nominee. He said Huntsman’s campaign is “the most active in pushing” crossover voting and urged Democrats not to go along “just because you’re mad at a particular candidate or one campaign says, ‘Hey, I need you, and wink-wink, nod-nod, I’m not really a Republican anyway.’”

Huntsman campaign spokesman Marty Carpenter said it’s Utahns who’ll vote for a GOP candidate in November who are being targeted. It’s been four decades since a Democrat won the governor’s race in Utah and Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, isn’t seeking reelection after more than a decade in office.

“There were more than 750,000 Utahns who voted for the Republican governor in the 2016 general election but fewer than 250,000 who cast a vote in the 2016 Republican primary,” Carpenter said. “Our efforts as a campaign have been to encourage everyone who votes in November to do so when it matters most.”

Dabakis has been defending his decision to join the GOP at least temporarily, tweeting recently, “This is not designed to sabotage anyone. It is proud Utah citizens looking at those four candidates and deciding who of them would be the BEST governor! Something wrong with that?”

Elections officials don’t track how many voters are switching their political affiliation so they can cast a ballot in the upcoming Republican gubernatorial primary.

“Whether someone changes from one party to another really doesn’t affect the administration of the election,” state Elections Director Justin Lee said, calling it “a point of curiosity” that would take significant programming changes in the elections software used by the state to determine.

Lee, who works for the lieutenant governor, said a few legislators have already talked to him about making those changes.

“It’s strictly a resources issue for us and not a political issue,” he said, adding there’s “no doubt” the office will compile those numbers “at the right time,” not just a few weeks before the election. Ballots in what will be an almost entirely by-mail election go out next week.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said since more than 204,700 unaffiliated voters were notified about their options to participate in the June primary election, the number of unaffiliated voters has dropped by nearly 8,000, while the number of Republican ballots ordered for the election has jumped nearly 6,800 over the last month.

But Swensen said it’s not clear that Democrats are registering to vote Republican in the primary.

If that’s happening, she said, and “their motivation is they want to select the best candidate and someone that they believe in, I don’t know that’s a bad thing,” she said. “I think if they’re doing it for the wrong reasons, I don’t think that’s an ethical thing to do.”

Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner said her office has heard from about 100 Democrats who have asked to join the GOP, while all of the 1,500 unaffiliated voters so far who’ve replied to the notification sent about the primary want to register as Republicans.

“With a a highly contested partisan race like the governor’s race, you’ll see a lot of unaffiliated registering,” Powers Gardner said. She said she knows two Democrats personally who have changed their party affiliation to vote in the Republican primary “but I’m just not seeing it on a mass scale.”

Powers Gardner said in her role, she wants people to be able to vote.

“I’m a Republican but I take my charge as an election administrator very seriously,” she said. “If I have a friend who is a Democrat who says, ‘I’m going to become a Republican so I can pick our next governor,’ then they are following the rules of the Republicans and they want to have a say in who the next governor is. I fully respect that.”

Derek Brown, Utah Republican Party chairman, isn’t anticipating Democrats having much of an effect on the primary.

“I’m hearing anecdotal stories here and there, and a few folks like Jim Dabakis are trying to make some noise, but not much beyond that,” Brown said. “It’s hard to know for sure, but it seems like a variation of this issue comes up up in election cycles regularly, and there is sound and fury, but when the election is over, there was very little actual impact.”

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said he hasn’t heard from many Democrats who are switching parties for the election. Merchant said he believes Democrats are instead excited about their party’s candidate for governor, Peterson, who served in the Obama administration.

“I don’t know how many are focused on voting for a Republican candidate,” he said.

Merchant said the “miscommunication” with the lieutenant governor’s office that resulted in the handful of Democratic primaries around the state, including in the 1st Congressional District, being closed to all but Democrats and unaffiliated voters will be reversed in time for the next primary election.

“It’s not a permanent change,” he said. “We have an open primary system and we intend to always have one.”