Utah GOP registrations soar amid push for Dems, unaffiliated voters to switch parties

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Utah voters cast ballots at the University of Utah's Marriott Library in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. This year's primary appears to be shaping up to see an unprecedented number of unaffiliated and Democratic voters registering as Republican to have a say in the four-way governor's race for the GOP nomination.

David Carlson has spent about 30 years as a proud Democrat. But this year’s GOP primary in the governor’s race has him so concerned, he was willing to shed that longtime party affiliation and register as a Republican.

Living in a deep-red state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in four decades, he felt that joining the Republican Party was the only way for him to cast a meaningful vote against former House Speaker Greg Hughes, the gubernatorial candidate who scares him most. Still, he said, the party change wasn’t pleasant.

“My ballot burned my fingers when I opened it,” the Salt Lake City resident said.

In this year’s high-stakes races for governor and attorney general, several prominent political figures are encouraging Democratic and unaffiliated voters to jump ship so they can participate in Utah’s closed Republican primary. And by Friday, the deadline for new voter registrations and party switches, the Utah Republican Party has gained more than 103,000 new active voters since the end of last year and more than 44,000 this month alone.

While those increases came about through a combination of new voter registrations and party switches, state elections director Justin Lee said the number of people registering in the GOP is “certainly higher than I’ve seen in past primaries.”

Meanwhile, other categories have been losing voters, he noted. Nearly 7,800 active Democrats have left the party this month, while the number of active unaffiliated voters has dropped by more than 21,000, according to state voter registration statistics.

Jim Dabakis, a liberal Democrat and former state lawmaker who joined the GOP just to vote in the Republican primary, put out a final call for others to join him Friday. In his newsletter, Dabakis argued that with Republicans dominating the Utah governor’s office since 1980, Democrats and unaffiliated voters have spent decades largely excluded from choosing the state’s chief executive.

“It is time for EVERYONE in Utah to have a say about who the candidates will be for the November election for Governor,” Dabakis wrote in his newsletter.

Kem Gardner, developer and old-school Democrat, has also been encouraging Utahns to join the GOP and weigh in on the gubernatorial primary — where Hughes will face off against Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman and former state GOP chair Thomas Wright.

More recently, a former Utah GOP leader began urging minority voters to join the party so they can vote in the governor’s race and push police reforms. James Evans, the only African American ever elected as chair of the Utah Republican Party, says the upcoming election is a “unique opportunity to perhaps determine the next governor of Utah so that we can get some serious police reform and address some of the systemic inequities here in the state.”

Huntsman, for one, has made no secret of encouraging non-GOP voters to register as Republicans for the primary, and polls indicate he does well among independents and Democrats. But Hughes has denounced organized efforts, especially among Democrats, as an “attack” on the GOP and “a concerted effort of Democrats dishonestly invading our party in an attempt to defeat me” because “they fear my conservative vision.”

Rachel Weaver, a Brigham Young University student, is among the young people who joined the Republican Party to vote, in hopes that she can hold the state’s next governor and attorney general accountable on issues of policing and equity.

“So if they win, I have a right to say, ‘Hey, I voted for you. I want to see some police reform. I want to see some immigration reform in Utah,‘” Weaver explained. “‘I supported you. You now have an obligation to me to hold up your end of the bargain.‘”

Coming from a staunchly Democratic family, Tiare Cutri said it was difficult to change her party registration to Republican. But she said she was willing to do it — and encourage other minority voters to do so — in order to push for police reform, immigration reform and addressing systemic discrimination and disparities in the state.

“We need to be strategic,” Cutri, also a BYU student, said. “And if that means becoming a Republican for a day, then I’ll do that.”

Tabitha Pacheco, a Springville resident who runs an education nonprofit, said she’s long been unaffiliated but registered as a Republican earlier this year so she could sign the petition to put Cox on the primary ballot for governor. She said he seems more moderate on the issues, and she appreciated his speech to the LGBTQ community in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla.

“I felt like he was a genuine, kind human, and I hadn’t really seen that before in other candidates,” she said.

Pacheco, Carlson and Cutri also say the party change isn’t permanent and plan to leave the GOP at some point after the primary election.

But fellow party switcher Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, archly suggested he might get comfortable as a Republican.

“Why not? We are probably going to need to support Mitt when he faces a MAGA primary in a few years. Here’s to the rise of progressive Utah Republicans!” Williams wrote in Twitter. “Let’s be the change we want to see in the Grand Old Party!”

Williams, whose organization’s political action committee endorsed Huntsman, said he changed from unaffiliated to Republican so he could cast a vote for the former governor. Huntsman is a bridge builder, Williams said, adding that he felt “like we really need a unifying presence to lead our state in this time of great polarization.”

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said Friday was the deadline for voter registrations and to change party affiliation. However, unaffiliated voters can register as Republican on the day of the June 30 primary if they live in a county offering drive-up voting locations, she said.

These voters will be handed Republican ballot packets at the drive-up sites after they switch from unaffiliated to the GOP, she said. However, same-day voter registration will not be provided at the locations, Swensen said.

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board.