A proposal to crack down on voters who switch parties before a primary election was softened slightly on Friday by a House committee, but opponents argue, even with the changes, the bill still amounts to a form of voter suppression.
The proposal from freshman South Jordan Republican Rep. Jordan Teuscher comes in response to efforts by candidates and others to get independents and some Democrats to change their party affiliation to Republican in order to vote in last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary.
Thousands of voters — independents and Democrats — switched parties ahead of that election, which was decided by a little more than 6,300 votes.
It’s hard to say whether that was the deciding factor, but Teuscher worries that what he sees as a kind of political gamesmanship may become the norm in the future.
“You can easily imagine a scenario where members of the opposite party change their affiliation in order to nominate the weakest candidate to give their party a better chance of winning in the general election,” Teuscher said.
“I think what we saw last year was just the overture of what could be if we allow the current law to stay in place with the ease of social media to quickly mobilize people. I believe it is critical that we find a way to prevent this from happening in future elections,” Teuscher continued.
He changed the bill Friday so that if voters switched political parties after March 31 of an election year, the change wouldn’t go into effect until after the primary election. His original proposal set the deadline as Jan. 1 of even-numbered years.
The March 31 deadline now proposed falls after the party caucus meetings, which gives parties the chance to recruit and motivate their base.
Justin Lee, director of the Utah Elections Office, told the committee there were at least 105,000 Utahns who changed their party registration between April 25, the day of the party conventions, and the June 30 primary election. A majority of those voters, around 65,000, cast ballots.
Newly registered voters would not be subject to the proposed restrictions.
While the bill theoretically impacts all political parties in Utah, practically it is aimed at protecting the Republican Party from party switchers because of the GOP’s closed primary.
Democrats allow voters of any party or registered as unaffiliated to participate in their party primaries.
The registration restrictions did not sit well with some members of the public, who said the move smacked of voter suppression.
“You’re preventing a much larger group of people from voting in the Republican primaries,” argued Lehi’s Wayne Whitfield. “You really don’t want to turn these people away. These are your new recruits. If you do get voters to come from outside your tribe strategically to vote in your election, heaven forbid you might nominate a candidate with broader appeal.”
Longtime Salt Lake County Republican George Chapman urged lawmakers to reject the bill.
“I welcome more voters to declare themselves as Republican since it will help me and the GOP elect more Republicans in Salt Lake County. That’s my goal. I want these new potential Republicans,” he said.
Republicans on the committee were unconvinced. Only one voted against the measure.
Correction: 10:50 am, Feb. 6: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rep. Jordan Teuscher’s hometown.