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Election news from across Utah's statewide and national races in 2020.

Some Utah Democrats Are Switching Sides For The Primary — But Will It Matter?

Illustration of a blue donkey wearing a red elephant mask.
Renee Bright
Some Democrats and left-leaning unaffiliated voters are temporarily registering as Republicans in order to vote in the party's June primary. Because Utah votes strongly Republican, some argue state-wide races are decided in the primary.

25-year-old Jess Esplin is an unaffiliated voter who describes herself as “progressive” and usually votes for Democrats. But she has a plan as she sits down at her computer.

She’s registering as a Republican so she can vote in the party’s primary.

“If I want to have a say in who leads our state then I should vote in the Republican primary,” Esplin said. 

Photo of woman holding a laptop.
Credit Courtesy Jess Esplin
Left-leaning voter Jess Esplin looks at a voter registration form on her computer

She mainly wants a say in the governor’s race. It’s the first open seat for Governor since 2004, and it’s been decades since Utahns elected a Democrat to fill that post. So, some argue the primary is essentially the election.

Esplin said she’s pragmatic — willing to vote for a candidate she doesn’t totally agree with to keep a candidate she really doesn’t agree with out of office. And she has one particular person in mind as she signs up for the GOP. 

“I would really like to not see Greg Hughes win,” Esplin said. 

Greg Hughes is a former speaker of the Utah House, and Esplin said she did not like that he helped block Medicaid expansion or how he spearheaded the controversial effort to address homelessness in the Rio Grande area of Salt Lake City. 

Ultimately, Esplin takes issue with the fact that the Republican primary is only open to voters registered as Republicans, since many statewide races get decided in that election. The Democratic primary, on the other hand, is open to unaffiliated voters and Democrats, but not those registered Republican.

“It bothers me the way that our state election is set up that essentially only a relatively small percentage of Utahns weigh in on who should hold the highest elected office in the state,” Esplin said. 

Republican Heartburn

Some Republicans are unhappy that Democrats are switching affiliation just to vote in their primary. They say it should be up to actual Republicans to choose a nominee. 

“It's cheating,” said Drew Chamberlain, a registered Republican and running mate for long-shot former Gubernatorial candidate Jason Christensen. 

“If you can go in and you can affect who the Republican candidate is,” Chamberlain said,  “the person that is elected as a Republican is more of a liberal, more on your side. That's the reason to do it. It is just dishonest. It shouldn't be allowed.”

There’s nothing illegal about making this temporary switch. But that perception of Democrats is exactly why Katie Adams-Anderton, part of the Young Democrats of Utah, chose not to change parties for the primary.

“A lot of the times, especially in this state, Democrats get thrown at this idea of like we're kind of the swamp of ethics,” Adams-Anderton said. “A lot of the time people out there are like, well, the Democrats have no morals. They stand for abortion.”

She argued that in order to get the support of more moderate voters, Democrats need to overcome that perception. 

“And so I get worried when we do stuff like thiswe're just playing into the narrative that they paint for us,” Adams-Anderton said

Adding Up The Votes

Both sides could be overestimating the impact these switches will have.

“The kind of voter that does this is particularly sophisticated and politically interested,” said Brigham Young University political scientist Quin Monson. “That doesn't describe most voters.”

Over the past month, the percentage of active voters registered as Republicans has only gone up by 0.15%. Monson said when he analyzed voter rolls leading up to the 2017 primary between John Curtis and two other republicans in Utah’s 3rd congressional district, only a couple dozen Democrats switched their registration to Republican. 

“It was really small, really insignificant,” Monson said. “I don't think it's very likely that it will happen in large enough numbers to matter in any way.”

Regardless of how much a difference votes from Esplin and others like her make during the primary, Esplin said she plans to drop her Republican affiliation and get behind most of the Democrats in November.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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