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Utah Senate votes in support of bill to keep people from party switching

Separately, a bill that would clarify the use of nicknames on the ballot failed.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Ballots are sorted at the Salt Lake County offices in Salt Lake City on Nov. 4, 2020. Utah state senators voted Thursday to make it harder for voters to switch parties.

In a largely party-line vote, the Utah Senate gave its stamp of approval Thursday to a bill that would make it harder for voters in the state to switch political parties ahead of an election.

The bill, which passed with a 19-6 vote, would prevent affiliation changes after March 31 in an election year. If a voter modified their registration after that date, it would not go into effect until after the primary election in June.

The effort comes after tens of thousands of Utah voters became Republicans ahead of last June’s primary election in order to cast a vote in the hotly-contested GOP primary for governor. And its practical effect would be to lock last-minute switchers out of those primaries, which allow only registered Republicans to cast a ballot.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo and the bill’s Senate sponsor, said the measure would prevent people from “gaming” the system, as he contends they did in that election, when former Sen. Jim Dabakis “openly and blatantly suggested that Democrats needed to switch parties to meddle in the affairs of the Republican Party.”

While it’s true that there was a concerted effort among some prominent Democrats to encourage Utahns to change their party affiliations ahead of the governor’s race, a new study has indicated that Democrats actually didn’t have much of an impact on last year’s Republican primary.

That report, from the Princeton University Electoral Innovation Lab, concluded that most of those who switched over were unaffiliated voters becoming Republicans rather than Democrats jumping parties. And most of them — 91.5% of those who cast a vote — have remained with the GOP, the study found.

During debate on the bill, HB197, on Thursday, several Democratic senators expressed concern about the proposal’s impact on voters.

Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said that many people who switch over simply want to ensure they have a say on who will fill high-profile state positions, decisions that are often all but made in the Republican primary contest in Utah.

“They paid for the elections and so shouldn’t they have the ability to switch to determine who would be their governor or … their attorney general or whatever?” she asked.

Bramble responded that the bill wouldn’t prohibit anyone from switching parties — they would just have to make the switch sooner. And the bill would not impact newly-registered voters.

But Iwamoto noted that voters might not know who the candidates are by the March 31 date. And Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, worried that the process wouldn’t be friendly to voters if the bill passed.

“I think this is cumbersome, burdensome, and it’s creating an extra layer of [obfuscation] to get a vote they would like to participate in,” she said.

Bramble said he thought the process was “just as comprehensible” as it was previously.

The bill requires one more procedural vote in the Senate before moving to the governor for his signature or veto.

Nickname bill dies

While they were supportive of HB197, the Senate knocked down a separate elections-related bill on Thursday that would have clarified the allowance of nicknames for candidates on the ballot.

Under the bill, candidates would be allowed to use only their given name, middle name, surname, their initials, or an abbreviation or variation of those elements. They could use a nickname only if, at the time of filing, they provided “documentary evidence” that they are “generally known” by that name and have used it for five years or more.

That would mean campaign slogans — like Mike “The Conservative” McKell or Mike “The Republican” McKell — would be prohibited, said Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork and the bill’s sponsor.

“I think the ballot should not be a tool for campaigning,” he told lawmakers on Thursday in advocating for the bill. “I think there is an integrity of the ballot. I think the ballot should be as clean as possible.”

But while his proposal would have added a few more guardrails around the use of nicknames, it wouldn’t keep them off the ballot altogether.

Jason “The Patriot” Christensen could be acceptable on the ballot, since a candidate has used that within the last five years, McKell said. State Auditor John “Frugal” Dougall could keep the nickname tying himself to fiscal responsibility. And Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, could probably use his Twitter handle, @gopTODD.

“But in the future, if Sen. [Scott] Sandall wanted ‘Scott the Great,’ I think he would probably be restricted with that,” McKell said.

During debate of the bill, several lawmakers questioned how someone would prove that they were known generally by a nickname and what “documentary evidence” would be required to do so. McKell said the state lieutenant governor’s office would have discretion on that.

But Bramble said he felt the bill lacked clarity and said he would oppose it, arguing that the measure would prohibit someone’s right to do something “with terms that are not well defined in the bill that would restrict these rights.”

Sen. Dan McCay, who revealed during the debate that he was known by the nickname “Digger Dan” in high school, argued that people should “be able to choose” the name they want on the ballot. He said the process that’s in place already works and worried this bill would put the lieutenant governor’s office in a position of making subjective decisions about what could be on the ballot.

“Some bills belong in the ashcan of history, and I would add a prohibition to what someone wants to put on the ballot to the ashcan of history,” said McCay, R-Riverton. “I understand what you’re trying to accomplish here, but as adults who are filing to run for office, they can make their own decisions about how they want to be known. And there’s already a process for the lieutenant governor to strike those names.”

McKell said the lieutenant governor’s office has made decisions about nicknames in the past but doesn’t currently have clear rules.

The bill, HB152, died after receiving support from just two senators: Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, and McKell, the bill’s sponsor.

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