Lawmaker looks to restrict voters’ switch of political parties

Bill would prevent changing party in an election year before a primary.

Tens of thousands of Utah voters switched their partisan registration to Republican ahead of last June’s primary election in order to cast a vote in the hotly contested GOP gubernatorial contest. Now comes a possible legislative backlash.

Voters in Utah would have to change their party affiliation before Jan. 1 of an election year if they wanted to vote in the state’s closed Republican primary.

HB197 is the brainchild of Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-West Jordan. The freshman lawmaker wants to restrict party-switching by voters by delaying a change made in an even-numbered year until after the June primary.

“This is about the integrity of the process. Anyone can register with whichever party they choose, but if they want to switch their registration right before the primary based on who the candidates are, it would prevent that,” he said.

While the party change delay would apply to all voters, the practical effect would be to lock last-minute switchers out of the Utah GOP primary, since only registered Republicans can cast a ballot in that election. Newly-registered voters would not be subject to the restriction. Utah’s Democratic Party has “open” primaries, meaning any registered voter can cast a ballot, regardless of party affiliation.

Ahead of last June’s primary election, the Utah GOP saw a surge of more than 103,000 new voters join their ranks, mostly due to the four-way gubernatorial primary. In the month before the election, the number of registered Democrats in Utah dropped by nearly 8,000 while data from the elections office showed 21,000 fewer unaffiliated voters at the same time the GOP swelled by more than 40,000.

Party switching was weaponized during the primary as candidates, and others adopted it as a campaign strategy. Former Gov. Jon Huntsman made a concerted effort to encourage independent voters who typically vote for Republicans in the general election to register as Republicans and cast their ballot for him.

Former Utah Democratic Chairman Jim Dabakis and prominent Democrat Kem Gardner also joined the fray, urging Democrats to temporarily become Republicans so they could help select the GOP nominee since the Democrat was a long shot to win the November election. (A Democrat has not been elected Utah governor since Scott Matheson in 1980.)

Former Utah Republican Chairman James Evans, the only Black person to ever serve in that position, also got into the act, urging minorities to register with the GOP in order to ensure that police reform would become an issue debated in the governor’s primary.

It’s hard to say what impact the party shuffling had on the primary. Spencer Cox slid past Huntsman by just over 6,300 votes statewide to grab the GOP nomination. A margin that close makes it difficult to point to one factor as the difference maker.

“I think seeing a number of people who not only changed parties but said publicly they were doing it to game the system, is concerning,” said Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown.

Teuscher echoed the fear of non-Republicans playing games by participating in the GOP primary elections.

“We’re a big tent party. We want diverging opinions, but we don’t want people coming in that don’t believe anything the party stands for. We don’t want them to come in and either vote for a candidate that is more moderate or, potentially, vote for someone who is radical in order to give another candidate a better chance of winning in the general election,” he said.

It’s not just Republicans impacted by the party swapping. Brown says having so many Democrats jump to the GOP is a bad look for them.

“I know there are some in the Democratic Party who are not thrilled to see this large-scale exodus because it is an admission that their party doesn’t have the kind of influence that they would like to have,” says Brown.

If Teuscher’s bill passes, Utah would have one of the most restrictive voter registration laws in the country. That distinction previously belonged to New York, which required voters to choose their party affiliation by October for the following year’s primaries. Last year that deadline was changed to mid-February. New York’s primaries are closed for all parties.

Editor’s note — Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors.