Political party switching banned in three months before primary election under bill headed to governor

HB197 seeks to crack down on so-called ‘party raiding’ in primary elections.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) This Nov. 3, 2020, photo shows a voter dropping off her ballot at the Davis County Library's South Davis Branch in Bountiful. Under a bill given final legislative approval Wednesday, voters would be blocked from switching parties for nearly three months before a June primary election.

Afraid that “party raiding” is interfering with Republicans’ selection of nominees in primary elections, the Utah Senate gave the final legislative stamp of approval to a bill limiting when voters can change their party affiliation.

Republican senators voted 22-3 mostly along party lines Wednesday to pass HB197, which would prevent a voter from switching parties for nearly three months ahead of a primary election. If a voter decides to change party registration after March 31 of an election year, that change wouldn’t become effective until after the late June primary.

Three Democrats present voted no and two others were absent. Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, was the only member of the minority to vote for the bill. The bill wouldn’t affect the Democratic Party because it has open primaries where any registered voter can participate.

Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, said he brought the legislation in response to efforts to recruit Democrats to join the Republican Party to cast a ballot in the 2020 primary for governor.

“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,” Teuscher told a House committee last month. “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 part a better chance of winning the general election.”

But a study from the Princeton University Electoral Innovation Lab found Teuscher’s fears are unfounded as most of the tens of thousands of Utahns who switched parties last year to vote in the Republican primary election were unaffiliated voters, not Democrats.

The four-way gubernatorial Republican primary election pushed Spencer Cox to the GOP nomination over former Gov. Jon Huntsman by a little more than 6,300 votes. Huntsman’s campaign explicitly appealed to unaffiliated voters to register as Republicans to vote in the primary election. Some prominent Democrats urged members of their party to participate as Republicans, but the Princeton study found those efforts likely had little impact on the outcome of the race.

Still, Teuscher insists his bill is needed to head off what he sees as a growing problem.

“The purpose of the party nomination primary process is to allow members of the parties to select their best candidate to advance to the general election. HB197 has been narrowly tailored to ensure that as many people who want to participate in the primary process can, while preventing the gamesmanship that we saw in this last primary election,” he says.

The bill is now headed to the governor for his signature or veto.

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Tribune’s nonprofit board.