Editorial: An early Utah primary?

Published: Thursday, June 30 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Bill Hart of Sandy casts his ballot on an electronic voting machine during early voting at Sandy City Hall.

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With only six Electoral College votes beginning next year, Utah can't realistically become a big player when it comes to choosing presidential candidates. But 2012 offers the state a chance to at least drum up some attention, given that one Republican candidate, Jon Huntsman Jr., is a former Utah governor and another, Mitt Romney, was head of the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics.

According to news reports, the Romney team is pushing for Utah to move its presidential primary from June to a date earlier in the spring. The speculation is that this would give Romney a notable boost, because polls show he would win the state handily over Huntsman. At the same time, a loss in his home state might deal a big blow to the Huntsman campaign.

The state Republican Party shouldn't pick a primary date in order to help or hurt any particular candidate. It should, however, make decisions that would be good generally for the electorate and that would boost interest in the democratic process. Frankly, 2012 offers Utah a rare opportunity to drum up real enthusiasm over an early GOP primary. And, polls not withstanding, such a race may not be so easy to predict at this early stage, especially if candidates campaign here with energy and intensity.

There are many ways to figure voter turnout rates. In virtually all of them, Utahns performed dismally in 2008. Perhaps the most accurate rate is compiled by the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University. It takes the votes cast for the highest office on the ballot and divides them by the voting-eligible population. In Utah, the resulting figure was 54.5 percent in 2008, which was fifth worst in the nation. By comparison, neighboring Colorado had a 70.2 percent turnout. Minnesota led the nation with a 77.7 percent turnout.

Utahns traditionally think of themselves as civic-minded people who cast informed ballots because it is a duty inherent to life in a democracy. But lately the state has sagged to a level at which nearly a majority of eligible voters are content to sit back and let others govern for them. There are a variety of reasons why this is so, but an early presidential primary, especially next year, might inject a new sense of meaning to the individual franchise.

There is another reason for trying to make Utah more conspicuous in a presidential race. An early primary might force all candidates to focus on issues important to the state, such as those concerning federal lands and immigration, among other things.

Utah tried to get some attention in 2008 by holding its primary on Feb. 5. However, several other larger states hijacked that attempt by also moving their primaries to that date. Utah was drowned out in all the noise.

The truth is, Utah is too small to make much of a splash in the nominating process, and it is seen as too safe of a Republican stronghold to gain much attention once the major parties have settled on candidates. But, at least in 2012, it has a chance to make a little stir, even as it puts a charge in local voters.

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