Here’s a telling stat: In Utah, there are more registered unaffiliated voters than there are Democrats. Roughly 600,000 including both active and inactive voters. Inactive just means the person hasn’t voted in a couple of general election cycles.
Polina Konuchkova of West Jordan is one of these unaffiliated voters, and she recently got a letter in the mail.
“[It said] that if I’m an independent voter, there is a different process of how to vote in the primaries,” she said.
Though Konuchkova didn’t finish reading the whole letter — it was pretty long.
“But what seems confusing is that each party has a very different system of how to vote for the candidate in the primaries.”
So Konuchkova reached out to KUER through our question-and-answer portal called The Hive Mind to see if we could make less confusing.
Utah’s primaries are run by the parties, not the state. And each party gets to set the rules for who can participate.
“So we call it an election but it’s really a nominating process,” said Sherrie Swensen, the Salt Lake County Clerk.
Swensen wrote that long letter to unaffiliated voters like Konuchkova and she fields phone calls everyday from voters explaining that unlike the general election, in primaries, you can’t just vote for whichever candidate you want.
Only Republicans can vote in the Republican primary. Democrats, on the other hand, have an open primary.
“Everyone’s welcome to participate in Democratic primaries in Utah,” said Alex Cragun, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party. “We believe ourselves to be an open party, accepting of people of all political stripes. So our electoral process reflects as such.”
So for an unaffiliated voter who wants to go blue, he or she can request a Democratic ballot without actually having to join the Democratic Party — and done. Civic duty complete.
But for someone like Konuchkova, who lives in West Jordan, County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said there’s another complicating factor.
“The Democratic primary only pertains to House District 24 and Senate District 2 and those are just in an area in Salt Lake City,” she said.
That means Konuckova, who lives outside of those districts, couldn’t vote in the Democratic primary even if she wanted to.
That leaves option B.
The Republican primary for U.S. Senate, featuring Mitt Romney versus state lawmaker Mike Kennedy, is the only statewide race this cycle. But for Konuchkova to get a ballot, she *would* have to join the Republican Party.
“We feel we get a better candidate who represents Republican values within the party,” said Rob Anderson, chairman of the Utah GOP.
Anderson expects the higher profile race may attract more independent voters than previous primary cycles, which typically have dismal turnout. In 2016, Salt Lake County’s primary turnout was less than 27 percent.
“If you looked at the convention outcome, and you’re a Romney supporter, and you’re not affiliated, and you really want to make sure he was the Republican nominee, that you might jump into the race and vote.”
Either way, for a vote-by-mail balloting, unaffiliated voters will need to make up their minds pretty soon and let their clerks know which ballot to send. Unless you want to go with option C, says Sherrie Swensen.
“They could still go to the polling place on election day, or earling voting location on election day Day, and affiliate in order to participate."
Alternatively, there’s an option D. If Polina Konuchkova does nothing — stays unaffiliated and doesn’t go to a polling location on election day — she could still be sent a vote-by-mail ballot for any non-partisan race in her district, such as school board.
So what does Konuchkova think she’ll do?
“I think I need to think about it a little more, now that I understand a little better,” she said.
Konuchkova, who’s originally from Russia but now has U.S. citizenship, said thinks her vote would count more in the U.S. Senate race if she cast a ballot now as opposed to November. But she’s just not sure it’s worth switching parties to do so.
Konuchkova won’t have long to noodle. The soft deadline for mailing back that affiliation preference letter was May 25. But Sherrie Swenson said she’ll continue mailing ballots to those who want them up until about a week before the primary on June 26.