Utah elections officials expect record voter turnout in Tuesday primary, despite pandemic

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Early voter casts his ballots at the Salt Lake County Government Center, Aug. 12, 2019.

Though the global pandemic has forced gubernatorial candidates off the campaign trail and shut down in-person polling places, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen still holds onto hope that voters will participate in Tuesday’s primary in record numbers.

“Maybe that’s my optimistic thinking,” she laughingly said on the eve of the election.

The statistics so far appeared to back up her positive thinking. On Monday, state elections officials reported that county clerks statewide had already processed nearly 345,000 ballots, meaning they’ve already heard from about 23% of the state’s active voters.

By comparison, overall voter turnout in the 2016 and 2018 primaries stood at about 26% and 29% respectively.

And the participation totals reported by the state Monday don’t count the ballots that are currently in a 24-hour quarantine because of COVID-19 or the ones that voters will mail or drop off Tuesday, Swensen said. Utahns typically have to postmark their ballot the day before election day but will be able to do that the day of the election for this year’s primary, under the new rules adopted because of the pandemic.

She acknowledges that the coronavirus in all likelihood will have a dampening effect on turnout, with polling locations closed on election day to keep groups of people from gathering in close lines and breathing on the same voting equipment.

As a result, same-day registration won’t be an option for voters Tuesday — possibly pushing down turnout rates, she said.

Still, she said, there are signs that enthusiasm over the first race for an open governor’s seat in nearly 30 years and some high-interest congressional contests will overcome these setbacks.

“We’ve certainly seen a big increase in voter registration,” Swensen said. “So I’m hoping for a record turnout.”

[Election 2020: Utah’s gubernatorial candidates and where they stand on the issues]

The Utah Republican Party has gained more than 113,000 new active voters since the end of last year and nearly 54,000 this month alone. Those big jumps in party membership have come as several high-profile Democrats urged people to register as Republicans so they can weigh in on the four-way primary for governor and the GOP attorney general’s contest. Also, a former state Republican Party chairman has urged people of color to switch to the GOP to press the cause of police reform.

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

He, like Swensen, believes the state is “on pace to have a historic turnout for a primary election.”

The campaign of gubernatorial hopeful Jon Huntsman has encouraged party switching, with polling showing that he has an edge among unaffiliated and Democratic voters. Meanwhile, former House Speaker Greg Hughes, a more conservative candidate, has called these organized efforts 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.”

[Read more: What to expect out of Tuesday’s all-mail primary election]

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said he’s doubtful that these new GOP voters will make a big numerical difference in the contest between Huntsman, Hughes, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former state party chairman Thomas Wright.

Still, in a relatively tight race between Huntsman, Cox and Hughes, it’s possible that these voters could tip the scale, he said.

“With three fairly competitive candidates, that would suggest, I think, that people who have crossed over could have an impact in terms of the nature of the outcome,” Burbank said.

Republican National Committee data shared by Laurel Price, executive director of the Utah GOP, suggests that “for all of the talk about these people who are switching parties,” not many of them have followed through to vote in the Republican primary so far. Price said only about 12,000 former Democrats or unaffiliated voters have cast GOP ballots to date, according to her data.

“It is kind of interesting that someone would go to the trouble to affiliate Republican and not vote, so it’s going to be really interesting to see if those numbers change,” she said.

Better turnout from these party switchers is likely good news for Huntsman, but could also help Cox, who has cast himself as a more moderate Republican, Burbank said. Those two candidates also likely benefit from strong overall voter participation, he added.

Utah elections officials said they are not able to break down the 345,000 processed ballots by party, so they can’t yet say how many Republicans have voted in the primary. However, Price’s data from the Republican National Committee shows that about 267,000 GOP voters have mailed in ballots — or about 34% of active Republicans in the state.

“This is going to be a really high [turnout] election,” she predicted.

Roughly 39% of active Republicans voted in the 2016 governor’s primary, in which incumbent Gov. Gary Herbert faced off against challenger Jonathan Johnson, according to state elections data. Turnout for active Republicans was a bit higher, at 52%, in the 2018 primary contest between U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney and Mike Kennedy, a former state representative.