If you’re a registered Democrat in Utah but were hoping to vote in the closed Republican primary election to replace Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, better luck next time.

For the last several years, Utah enforced a moratorium on when voters who are affiliated with another party can switch over to participate in the GOP primary. It’s an attempt to stop Democrats from mobilizing to change party affiliation to sway the outcome of the closed Republican elections.

Some call it “party raiding” — Republican lawmakers say it’s “gamesmanship” and a dishonest attempt to influence the election.

Other officials push back on the claim that switching parties is nefarious. They say it’s a way for voters in Republican majority districts, where the primary will likely decide who wins the general election, to make sure their vote counts in a taxpayer-funded election.

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And according to some county clerks, party raiding just isn’t happening on a large scale, a claim backed by data.

For most election years, the deadline to switch parties is March 31, though unaffiliated voters can register as Republicans right up to Election Day. Utah Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, recently sponsored a bill imposing that same moratorium for presidential election years, moving the deadline to switch affiliation as a Republican to the first week of January ahead of the presidential primary.

For this upcoming special election, the deadline to switch parties was the day Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB2001, the bill that came out of the special session to set new election dates in the wake of Stewart’s resignation announcement.

The bill included $50,000 to revise the state’s voter software to impose the deadline.

Concern over party raiding ramped up in 2020, Teuscher says, when former Utah Democratic Party chairman Jim Dabakis publicly announced his Republican affiliation and encouraged others to do the same in an effort to sway the gubernatorial primary. Dabakis said he’s “a Utahn before I’m a member of a party.”

“What we saw in 2020 were really overt, coordinated campaigns — former members of the Democratic Party coming out publicly on Twitter saying, ‘everyone switch over to the Republican Party, let’s make a difference,’” said Teuscher. “And not only that, but encouraging members to vote for the more extreme candidate, in some cases, so that the Democratic candidate in the general election would have an easier time.”

In response, Teuscher sponsored HB197 in 2021, which set a March 31 deadline to switch parties. He calls the bill a compromise, pointing to similar laws in other states — voters in New York, for example, cannot switch party affiliation after Feb. 14.

“We want more members of the Republican Party. We want them to come. ... That being said, if you’re switching to try to undermine the election, to try to play games in the election and primary process, then the message is stay in your own lane, stay in your own party,” Teuscher said.

Critics of the bill sometimes point out that taxpayers pay for elections, yet some are excluded from participating in the GOP’s primary. Teuscher called that argument a “red herring.”

Everyone gets to vote in the general election, so the voters still get a voice, he said. And if Democrats want a more competitive general election, they should pick better candidates.

“What they are putting forward, people in the general election don’t want to buy. And so they need to think a little more introspectively, rather than going and trying to change the outcome of our election by infiltrating the Republican primaries,” he said.

Former GOP chairman Carson Jorgensen told the Deseret News that party switching at times made his job difficult, and was something he worked with lawmakers to try and prevent.

“It’s not fair and it’s not right for these people to switch over to vote Republican and influence the primary, and then switch back to vote Democrat in the other elections. It makes it almost impossible to run a party when that happens because you don’t know where you’re at. You don’t know what your membership looks like,” Jorgensen said.

His message for registered Democrats who want to vote in the GOP primary is simple: “Swallow your pride and register as a Republican before the deadline.”

‘Party raiding,’ by the numbers

In Salt Lake County, a Democrat stronghold, officials say there is little evidence of party raiding.

“If it was to happen somewhere, you would see it here,” says County Clerk Lannie Chapman.

Neither Chapman nor former County Clerk Sherrie Swensen ever noticed a trend. While they’ve certainly seen a rise in Republican voters, there is little evidence to suggest there is movement between the parties on a large scale.

“We’re not seeing a large amount, or something that would even be distinguishable, where they’re switching back,” said Chapman.

According to data from Salt Lake County, between May 31 to June 20, the clerk’s office received 6,395 online forms from the Drivers License Division and the lieutenant governor’s office.

During that same window in 2021, the county had 4,510 of those same forms, an increase of roughly 1,800.

Some of those people could be changing their party affiliation to vote in the upcoming Republican primary, but Chapman says the majority are updating their address or registering to vote for the first time.

Statewide, both Teuscher and Jorgensen estimated there were between 60,000 to 80,000 new Republican voters that participated in the GOP primary in 2020 to vote in the gubernatorial race. And Chapman and Swensen said they did see a noticeable rise in Salt Lake County.

But again, without auditing every new voter it’s almost impossible to know whether they were party raiders, or just new Republicans. In Salt Lake County, Swensen suggests it was the latter.

“The huge majority didn’t change back, they stayed Republican. I don’t think there was any evidence of party raiding,” she said.

“It could be that they just found their party and they feel good there,” added Chapman.

A report from the Electoral Innovation Lab at Princeton University reached a similar conclusion after analyzing state voter registration data.

“Any pre-primary growth in the Republican Party was driven by newly registered Republicans and formerly unaffiliated voters, not by party-switching Democrats,” the report reads.

Data from the lieutenant governor’s office doesn’t show a drop in active Republican voters across the state, in 2018 or 2020. In 2022, the number of active GOP voters does dip slightly after the primary. Consider this:

  • In the six months leading up to the June 2018 primary, active GOP voters went from 628,391 to 643,279 — the week after the primary, the number of active GOP voters jumped to 644,056, increasing each week and hitting 669,965 the week of the general election.
  • The months leading up to, and after, the 2020 election follow a similar trend. There were 681,241 active GOP voters in January, increasing to 788,555 the week of the primary, where Cox beat former Gov. Jon Huntsman. Active voters continued to rise, hitting 795,415 the week after the primary, and 864,747 by the November general election.
  • And in 2022, there were 853,381 active GOP voters in January — by the week of the June primary, there was 877,159. However unlike the previous years, there was a slight dip in the weeks following, hitting a post-election low of 876,171 on July 18. By the November general election, the number of active GOP voters rebounded, hitting 882,396.

“You’re talking about a very, very small percentage of people who actually would be willing to go through the trouble to make that change. But they are out there. And if you’ve got tight margins, it can make a difference,” said Weber County Clerk Ricky Hatch.

At least one lawmaker takes issue with the state’s laws. Freshman Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, was the lone “no” vote during the special session for the bill. He had other concerns, but the “No. 1” reason for his opposition was once Cox signed the bill, the window to switch party affiliation closed.

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Blouin says party switching is something that people should be able to do, but not something he advocates for.

“We need to build our own Democratic Party up and it makes it very difficult to find our voters if they’re registering as Republicans,” he said.

But with the special election taking place in a staunchly Republican district, Blouin thinks Utahns who want a say in who will likely win the general election should be able to vote in the primary if they want.

“If they want to voice their perspective and vote in that primary because they feel like that’s where they can make a difference, then they should have that opportunity, whether the party switching is playing a role in the outcome or not,” he said.

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