Utah House narrowly approves bill to limit when voters can switch parties

The measure blocks voters from changing party affiliation right before a primary election.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) l-r Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, and Rep. Doug Welton, R-Payson, during floor time in the Utah House of Representatives, Feb. 9, 2021. Teuscher is sponsoring a bill to limit when voters can switch political parties ahead of a primary election.

The 2020 Utah Republican primary for governor was decided by a little more than 6,300 votes after a concerted effort to get independent voters and Democrats to register as Republicans. So, perhaps it’s fitting that a proposal to crack down on party switching narrowly squeaked through the Utah House on Friday 41-30.

House passage requires a minimum of 38 votes — a threshold barely surpassed as 14 Republicans joined 16 Democrats in the House in voting against the bill. One Democrat, Rep. Stephanie Pitcher of Salt Lake City, voted with the GOP.

HB197 from Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, aims to prevent voters from changing their party affiliation after March 31 in an election year. If they change their registration after that date, it would not go into effect until after the primary election in June.

Teuscher said that nearly three-month moratorium is key to preventing the practice of “party raiding,” where voters of one major political party vote in the rival party’s primary to help a weaker candidate prevail. He acknowledged that hasn’t been a problem in Utah, but said the 2020 primary highlighted the potential for mischief.

“What we saw last year was an overt campaign that was highly publicized,” said Teuscher. “I think with the advances in social media, the potential for this to come up every year that we have a primary election is very high.”

At least 105,000 Utahns changed their party registration between April 25 and the June 30 primary election last year, according to the state elections office. Around 65,000 of those voters cast ballots in the primary.

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, wasn’t buying Teuscher’s reasoning.

“I’m wondering if the sponsor could clarify which of the candidates running in that gubernatorial election does he perceive as the weaker candidate if the people were changing parties to support that weak candidate so their preferred candidate could win in the general election?” asked Ward.

Teuscher admitted that probably wasn’t a factor in that election, but noted Democrats likely didn’t join the GOP because they agreed with the party’s platform.

“They didn’t jump into the party because they believed in limited government, local control and wanted to make sure there was a strong representative of the party. They did it because they felt like they could change the will of what the regular party members would have wanted,” replied Teuscher.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said he fails to see the same nefarious motivations that Teuscher ascribes to the party switchers in last year’s election.

“Maybe there are 60,000 unaffiliated and Democratic voters who saw a great race and wanted to get involved in choosing a good candidate,” he said. House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said Republicans shouldn’t be offended that Democrats wanted to vote in their primary, because it shows Democrats know they have a slim chance of winning.

“The encouragement for Democrats to change their registration was so they could vote for the most palatable candidate. It was an explicit disrespecting of the ability of Democrats in the state of Utah to win the gubernatorial election,” he said.

King suspects the real reason for the bill is to exclude any voters from the Republican electoral process who may have a moderating effect on the Utah GOP.

“The party wants to go through an ideological purification process. They resent that the base voters within their party don’t have as much say and sway with what happens in Utah politics as they would like to see,” he said. “The effect of limiting who can vote in the primary of a supermajority party is to drive the candidates in that party to the extreme ideological wing of that party.”

“If you’re going to hold the voters hostage in that way and suppress access to voting, you probably ought to pay for your own primary as opposed to having the taxpayers pay,” he added.

Many conservative Republicans are still upset that Utah passed a law several years ago to weaken the voice of party delegates in the convention by opening up the primary ballot to signature-gathering favorites. The move was seen as a way to temper an increasingly right-leaning party platform and slate of candidates.

HB197 now heads to the Senate.