The Utah Republican Party’s decision to use a caucus system to conduct its presidential nomination process on Tuesday may have increased participation in party operations but it also resulted in dramatically decreased turnout overall and concerns over election integrity.

Utah was the last state to release its results out of the 15 states that held presidential primary elections this year on Super Tuesday. In Utah, former President Donald Trump easily beat his only remaining contender, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, 56% to 43%, capturing the state’s 40 delegates for July’s GOP convention.

This 13 percentage-point margin, representing less than 12,000 votes, was the smallest of any race across the country, with the exception of Vermont, where Haley beat Trump 50.2% to 45.9%, by just over 3,000 votes.

But one of the biggest takeaway’s from Utah’s “presidential preference poll” was the dismal turnout.

Low turnout in Utah’s Super Tuesday elections

As of Friday morning, 83,681 votes had been counted from the Utah Republican Party’s 2024 Super Tuesday election. This number, which could grow closer to 100,000 according to GOP chairman Rob Axson, represents a turnout of just 9.4% of Utah’s 890,637 active registered Republicans.

Turnout was much higher in 2016, the last time the Utah Republican Party utilized caucus meetings to select a presidential nominee. That election was also characterized by thousands of voters disenfranchised by dysfunctional websites, long lines and results that took weeks to finish coming in.

Still, roughly 191,330 votes were cast in Utah’s 2016 GOP caucus. That’s 31.7% of the 603,479 active registered Republicans at the time of the election. In other words, the 2016 GOP caucus presidential vote had better turnout than 2024 by more than 22 percentage-points.

In 2020, when the state Republican Party opted to return to a government-operated primary with mail-in ballots, 344,852 votes were cast, representing 48.6% of the 710,175 active registered Republicans at the time of the election — a turnout rate that is more than 39 percentage-points better than that of 2024.

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“The numbers, I think, are sufficient for a clear snapshot of where the Republican Party stands for the purposes of that nominating straw poll,” Axson told the Deseret News on Thursday. “It’s certainly not as high as I would like it to be; not as high as I would like it to be when we see the election turnout in November, either. I wish more Americans leaned into the process.”

While Axson said he recognizes that some people may have left their caucus before voting, or didn’t show up at all, because of its inconvenience or frustration over delays, he believes combining caucus night with the presidential primary vote remains a valuable option because of how it encourages party involvement at the grassroots and allows those who don’t normally participate in the caucus to have a say in who national delegates are.

This year may have had such lower turnout, Axson said, because, unlike 2016, it was not a competitive primary with “viable candidates” other than Trump.

“I don’t even think it was a truly even two person race,” Axson said. “So that creates a very different dynamic than what we had in 2016.”

But some think Haley would have been a more viable candidate in the state if it weren’t for a faulty system Tuesday night.

Concerns over voter security and access

“I think that it is not improbable that Utah could have voted for Nikki Haley, and she would have gotten all the delegates ... had this process gone better,” said Franz Busse, a GOP precinct vice chair from Holladay.

When voters arrived at one of the state’s 2,300 neighborhood precinct meetings on Tuesday, many were welcomed by small groups, smooth proceedings and a quick return home. But others — especially in a handful of bottlenecks along the Wasatch Front — were met with long lines, system failures and confusion over how to vote for their preferred GOP nominee or how to get ballots counted safely.

“Usually, you have a trade off between making an election really secure, or very accessible. And in this one, it was the worst of both,” Busse said. “They had all these processes that made it inaccessible. And then, because that broke down, it became completely unsecure.”

In an interview with the Deseret News, Busse described a scene of chaos where he volunteered at Olympus High School, one of the sites that experienced the most complications because of the number of precincts meeting in the building.

Like caucus locations in Herriman, South Jordan and Cottonwood Heights, Olympus High School saw queues snaking around the building, uncertainty surrounding several unfamiliar steps to vote and the temporary crash of a website used to verify voter registration. But what worried Busse most was the decentralized system’s absence of strict security measures.

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“There was zero control over these paper ballots. There were just stacks of them,” he said. “It would have been very easy for anyone to have gotten multiple ballots.”

Amid the crush of hundreds of people waiting to check in, technical glitches occurring well before the start of caucus meetings and frustration caused by outdated voter rolls, Busse said volunteers like himself struggled to explain the process all while making sure ballots were filled and counted appropriately.

Busse reported seeing stacks of absentee ballots that never made it to their precinct where they could be counted. Busse also said he witnessed individuals, young moms and elderly individuals, tired from waiting, who never made it to their precincts, opting to head home rather than weather further delays.

“It was also even more frustrating that we had such a bad process for people who had sacrificed so much to be able to make it there and had already been waiting in these lines for hours,” Busse said.

Busse enjoys the caucus system and said the GOP leadership’s decision to forego a state-funded, vote-by-mail primary succeeded in getting more Republicans out to the biennial caucus meetings where the party platform is read aloud and neighbors come together to select precinct positions, as well as state and county delegates

But, he said, more involvement at the grassroots level is not worth dissuading people from casting their vote.

“Greater participation is good, but not to the point that you’ve effectively suppressed so much vote by doing it,” Busse said.

Worth the wait?

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s event, Axson has publicly defended his decision to move to a party-run presidential nominating system, saying that the process should function more like a “very large, visual straw poll” and that a decentralized system, run by volunteers, is bound to experience some “hiccups.”

“We have 2,338 precinct meetings around the state on Tuesday night. And in all of those, it worked well, it was seamless, until the technological check-in system started to bog down,” Axson said. “And then they pivoted to their redundancy plans of paper and everything else. And that worked very well in the vast majority. In about ... 120 precinct locations or precinct meetings it didn’t work well.”

Each precinct was given instructions about ensuring ballot security and transparency, Axson said, with the main check on accuracy being that precinct officers were meant to count the votes in front of everybody present.

An audit of the results is possible, Axson confirmed. The party has retained all the ballots, and certification sheets filled out by party volunteers.

Axson readily admits immediate changes need to be implemented to the caucus system, especially if it is to be pared with presidential nominations in the future. The most obvious change is to disperse precinct meeting locations to avoid 20 neighborhood groups meeting in one building, like what happened at Brighton High School where Axson was seen trying to calm hordes of frustrated voters.

“All you can do is ‘lessons learned’ and try to create as efficient and accessible and available a process for folks,” Axson said.

But, according to Axson, the time and effort required by Tuesday’s caucus was a small price to pay to increase party involvement at the local level.

“Ultimately, the two and a half hours that it would have taken to participate, if that was too much for somebody, that’s their choice,” Axson said. “We appreciate that they attempted and they came down and they tried. We’ll learn from it moving forward. But we did not direct anybody to leave.”