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After Calls For Utahns To Switch Political Parties For The 2020 Primary, Lawmakers Pass A Bill To Make That Harder

UT Gov Debate All Candidates Ivy Ceballo
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News
Deseret News
Then-Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright participate in 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. Nearly 100,000 people joined the Utah Republican party from January-June 2020.

The Utah Legislature passed a bill Wednesday that limits when voters can switch their party affiliation in the run-up to a primary election. The Senate approved it without debate and sent it to the governor’s desk.

Under the legislation, if a voter switches parties after March 31, that switch would not take effect until after the primary election. Unaffiliated and new voters are allowed to register with a new party during that time. However, voters could not leave one party, become an unaffiliated voter, and then register with a different one between March 31 and the primary election.

The idea behind the Republican-backed bill is to prevent Democrats from joining the Republican party en-masse to try to influence the party’s primary election.

“You can easily imagine a scenario where members of the opposite party change their affiliation in order to nominate the weakest candidate to actually give their party a better chance in the general election,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, during a committee hearing last month. “This is the type of gamesmanship that [this bill] is designed to prevent.”

It’s also a response to calls from some well-known Democrats last year for party members to join the GOP in order to vote in the gubernatorial primary for a more moderate candidate. They argued, because Utah is so heavily Republican, the primary election essentially decides who will win statewide office.

According to an analysis from Princeton University's Electoral Innovation Lab, nearly 100,000 people joined the Republican party from January-June 2020. However, that analysis found the growth in the party “was driven by new registrations and re-registration by unaffiliated voters, with little crossover registration from Democrats into the Republican party.”

“The bill was introduced for a political reason and it seems to have been passed for a political reason,” said Andy Coopersmith, associate director of the Electoral Innovation Lab. “Because it certainly doesn't seem to be necessary for the reason that it was introduced based on the evidence that we found.”

Critics of the legislation argue preventing people from switching parties in this way is bad for democracy.

“When Utahns affiliate with a political party in order to vote in an election, they are not ‘gaming the system,’ they are participating in democracy,” said Alliance for a Better Utah Policy Director Lauren Simpson in a statement last month. “Political power fundamentally belongs with the people. Utahns should have the freedom to affiliate how they wish and vote for the candidates of their choice.”

The bill now heads to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk, who won the 2020 gubernatorial Republican primary that inspired the legislation.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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