Richard Davis: No more public money for closed primary elections

(Ivy Ceballo | Deseret News, pool) Former House Speaker Greg Hughes bumps elbows former Gov. Jon Huntsman while former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright goes in for an elbow bump too following the Utah Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate at the PBS Utah studio at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 1, 2020.

Let’s hold an election all voters have to pay for, but then let’s not allow most voters to participate. Does this sound like a joke?

It should, but it isn’t. It is the reality of the June 30 Utah primary election. While a majority of Utah voters cannot vote in this election because they are not Republicans, all taxpayers will pay for the election.

It is time to end this situation. If the Republican Party is truly private, then it should run its own primary election and pay for it itself. The party should organize polling places, print ballots and use its funds to publicize its primary. That is what a private organization would do.

On the other hand, if it really is a public organization that warrants taxpayer money to fund its elections, then it is not a private. And if it is not a private organization, then the state should not abide by its rules on who can or cannot participate in the election. If it is public, then all taxpayers should be able to participate.

The reality is the Utah Republican Party is a private organization being subsidized with public funds. The state is running the primary election. County clerks are enforcing the Republican Party’s rules. In fact, they are even sending out notices telling people they must register as Republicans to vote in the primary, and therefore tacitly encouraging voters to do so.

The use of taxpayer dollars to pay for an internal Republican Party election (and to encourage people to register as Republicans) is a misuse of precious government funds. In reality, it is no surprise this is happening, however, given that nearly all county clerks are Republicans, the state elections office is run by Republicans, and over 80 percent of the state legislators who provide these funds also are Republicans.

There are two possible solutions to this issue of taxpayer money being used to fund an election most voters cannot participate in. One is for the state to open primary elections to allow all voters to participate, regardless of the party. Other parties have open primary elections in Utah. The Democrats have done so for some time. The United Utah Party does as well.

But the state cannot force the Republicans to open their primary election. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, a state cannot mandate what a party does in terms of opening or closing its primary elections. And, clearly, a call to the Republicans to open their primaries themselves would fall on deaf ears.

That is why the other solution is the only real option. That is to call on the Legislature to refuse to provide funding for primary elections when party rules do not allow all voters to participate. If Republicans want to hold a primary election for themselves, that is fine. But they should not expect taxpayers to foot the bill. Any closed primary election would have to be conducted by the Republican Party at their own expense, not the taxpayers'.

Can the state refuse to run a primary election? Yes, Utah has done it before. In 2004, the state Legislature declined to fund presidential primary elections. As President George W. Bush was the presumed nominee, Republican legislators refused to fund an election just for Democrats. The Democrats had to run their own election and it was an expensive proposition for the party. If Republicans faced the dilemma, they would quickly change their policies about closed primaries.

Will the Legislature act? Not likely, as the vast majority are Republicans who benefit from closed primary elections because they don’t have to appeal to non-Republicans to keep their seats.

So the real solution is to elect legislators who will defund the closed primary. United Utah Party candidates will do that. It is time for voters to act, and that means voting out those who perpetuate a system that disenfranchises them and electing those who believe that public money should not be used for a private party’s election.

Richard Davis

Richard Davis is the chair of the United Utah Party.