Utahns go to the polls today to vote in one U.S. House primary and primaries for legislative, county and school board contests, as well as bond elections in five school districts.

The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. And it will be a first experience for voters using electronic, touch-screen voting machines throughout the state.

The Republican 3rd Congressional District race between five-term Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, and challenger John Jacob is not only the top primary in Utah, but national Republicans and illegal-immigration groups are also watching the contest with interest.

The Cannon/Jacob race "has become ground zero" in the national immigration debate, Jacob said recently.

National pundits say should Cannon lose, House Republicans who've supported President Bush's more accommodating illegal-immigration approach will have to watch their political backs.

The 3rd District takes in the western half of Salt Lake County, all but the northeastern part of Utah County and several counties to the south.

A millionaire in land and water development who has basically self-funded his campaign, Jacob put an additional $60,000 of his own cash into the race Saturday, late-minute Federal Election Commission reports show. Altogether, Jacob has pumped $413,000 into his campaign.

Cannon, who spent $1.5 million of his own money in 1996 unseating then Democratic Rep. Bill Orton, has been getting some out-of-state cash from political action committees representing businesses and groups that historically have favored immigrant workers in America.

An anti-illegal-immigration PAC — Team America — has spent more than $40,000 buying pro-Jacob/anti-Cannon radio ads in the state.

The outside attention has pushed Utah's 3rd District race into national significance in the immigration debate now raging in Congress and across the United States.

A Web search Monday found that in the past three months the race has generated 45 separate national news stories, including 10 stories in Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress, and stories in the Washington Times, Los Angeles Times, Congress Daily and on National Public Radio.

A poll published over the weekend by the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, found Cannon ahead — 46-33 percent among registered voters in the 3rd District. But 18 percent of voters remained undecided.

"That's one of the highest 'undecideds' numbers I've seen so close to a primary election," said Jones, who has polled in Utah for more than 30 years.

Among those who said they were "very interested" in the race, Cannon led 49-42 percent, Jones found. The outcome will likely depend on who turns out the most supporters, said Jones.

Three state Senate seats and 12 state House seats have primary face-offs — all but two of those are for the Republican nomination. Several counties have primaries for commission seats, and incumbent sheriffs in Salt Lake, Davis and Box Elder counties face primary challenges. Five schools districts are asking voters to approve bonds, and the primary will also narrow the field of candidates for some school board seats around the state.

Even with all the races and issues at stake, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said she expects another poor primary turnout, "less than 10 percent" of county voters. Utah has seen poor primary turn-outs since legislators moved the primary election from September to June.

About 1,000 Salt Lake County voters took advantage of a new early voting law, casting ballots electronically starting two weeks ago. Swensen said she will have five of the new electronic voting machines at each of her polling places (the locations published in Sunday's Deseret Morning News and listed on her Web site: www.clerk.slco.org).

"Early voting went very well. For most people, it was a positive experience," Swensen said.

The Utah Republican Party holds closed primaries. You must be a registered Republican to get a GOP ballot. However, if you are currently "unaffiliated" — not registered in any political party — at your polling place today you can register as a Republican and pick up a GOP ballot.

If you are registered in any other political party, you can't switch to Republican at the polling places (that must be done weeks earlier), and you will be denied a GOP ballot. But you can still vote in any other party's primary races. And nonpartisan school board primaries and bond elections in five districts around the state are open to all voters.

When, where to vote

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. For polling locations, contact your county clerk (www.elections.utah.gov/countyclerks.html)


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com