Robert Gehrke: For the first time in my life, I belong to a political party — and here’s why you should, too

Well, I’ve done it. I’m officially a Republican.

A couple weeks ago I went online, filled out the form on the Salt Lake County Clerk’s website and for the first time in my life I belong to a political party.

Maybe now lawmakers will be nicer to me, or invite me into their secret meetings and exclusive parties.

I’m not counting on it, but that’s not why I made the switch. I did it because I should get to have a voice in who Utah’s next governor is. And I’m not alone.

It’s hard to pin down how many people are signing up as Republicans to vote in the gubernatorial election. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from a lot of friends and neighbors who say they’ve changed or plan to change over. An extremely unscientific Twitter poll I did last week got about 300 responses, and 60% said they would change their affiliation.

But it doesn’t seem to be a tidal wave of change yet. Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen told me Friday that her office sent out 200,000 letters to voters, notifying them of the upcoming election and that if they want to vote in either primary they would need to request ballots and if they want to vote in the Republican contest, they would need to affiliate with the party.

About 17,000 people returned the letters, but she said they have not been overwhelmingly Republican. She doesn’t know how many have changed online, but she doesn’t think that number has been significant, either.

“We really aren’t seeing any kind of a trend of a lot of people trying to change,” she said.

Party registration data from the lieutenant governor’s office might give some indication. There are 17,000 more Republicans registered now than at the time of the GOP state convention a little more than a month ago, compared to 3,400 Democrats. The number of unaffiliated voters has dropped by about 12,000.

Before you read too much into that, though, it’s almost exactly the same change we saw during this time four years ago.

I’ll do a deep dive into the voter file when we get closer to the election. I suspect that, unless the primary is extremely close, it won’t be enough to change the outcome.

Right now, all we know is two things: At least one person who was an unaffiliated voter is now a Republican (me) and whatever the total number, it’s enough to antagonize candidate Greg Hughes.

“The Republican Party in Utah is under attack,” Hughes tweeted after my colleague Taylor Stevens wrote about Democrats, including former party chairman and state Sen. Jim Dabakis changing parties.

Hughes went on to say there is a “concerted effort of Democrats dishonestly invading our party in an attempt to defeat me — not my opponents — because they fear my conservative vision.”

If Hughes is worried about an organized effort by Democrats, he vastly overestimates Democrats’ organizational ability.

He also misjudges why I and others I’ve talked to are switching. First, it’s the first time since I’ve been a voter and I’ve been living in the state where there is a meaningful gubernatorial primary (I wasn’t living in Utah when Jon Huntsman beat Nolan Karras in 2004).

And there is a very high likelihood that this primary will decide who runs the state for the coming decade. The Democratic nominee, Chris Peterson, seems like sharp, likable guy. But in the past five gubernatorial elections, the sharp, likable Democrat has lost by an average margin of 67% to 30%.

Second, the reason I’ve always been unaffiliated is because I generally despise parties — the way they distill complex decisions into two options, pit people against each other in tribal feuds, and exist generally only to accrue power and benefit themselves.

Maintaining independence has let me vote for the best candidate, not the letter after their name. But this time around, the only guarantee I’ll have that I can meaningfully vote for who I think is the best candidate is to do it in the primary.

So, no. I’m not joining the party to undermine Hughes. Or to subvert the primary. Or to choose the weaker candidate to help Democrats or create chaos.

And contrary to what I’m sure many will assume, I didn’t do it to support Jon Huntsman.

Yes, his campaign appears to be most active in encouraging people to change their registration to vote in the primary, a tactic that risks creating more backlash than support. And, yes, Huntsman’s brother is the chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board.

To be perfectly candid, I planned to do this before Huntsman even got into the race, for the reasons I’ve covered, and I honestly have not decided yet who will get my one paltry vote. I could make a credible argument for any of the four, even Hughes.

Basically, it boils down to this: I could either have no real say in who leads the state for the next, four, eight or even 12 years, or I could play by the party’s rules, sign up as a Republican and participate in democracy.

So yeah. Now I’m a Republican (my father must be so proud) and I’d encourage anyone who cares about the future of our state to visit secure.utah.gov/voterreg and join us.