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State spending $150,000 to promote switch from presidential primary to caucus

Published: Monday, March 7 2016 8:15 p.m. MST

Hugh Gallagher explains the Utah Republican Party online voting application during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 7, 2016.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The state is rushing to get nearly 1 million postcards in the mail this week to remind Utah voters that political parties are holding presidential preference caucuses this year instead of a primary election.

"We are getting a lot of questions," state Elections Director Mark Thomas said Monday, from voters who don't realize lawmakers decided last year not to fund a statewide primary election after the Utah GOP announced it was holding a caucus.

Republican leaders, who are in a court battle over changes to the state's caucus and convention system for choosing nominees, have spent more than $80,000 to set up what's being billed as the nation's largest-ever online election.

"I think it's going to be great," Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said at a demonstration of the party's online presidential preference voting that will take place all day March 22. "There's not a reason for anyone not to participate."

But not having a traditional presidential primary has been a source of frustration for Utah Democrats, who can only afford to circulate paper ballots during the evening neighborhood caucus meetings that same day.

"Voting is one of the central elements of a democracy, and our state Legislature refused to fund a primary to allow our citizens easy access to voting," Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said.

Thomas said the lieutenant governor's office, which oversees elections, was contacted several weeks ago by legislative leaders and asked to put together a last-minute promotional campaign for the caucuses.

The postcards direct voters to caucus.utah.gov for information about the March 22 Republican and Democratic presidential preference caucuses, as well as upcoming Libertarian, Independent American and Constitution party caucuses.

The 2016 Legislature is expected to appropriate $150,000 to pay for the mailing and the new link on the state's elections website, Thomas said. He said the postcards are still being printed and should arrive in Utah homes by early next week at the latest.

There is a March 15 deadline for Republicans to sign up to vote online in the Utah GOP's presidential preference election. But Utahns who want to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate can just show up at a Democratic caucus March 22.

Republicans will receive a 30-digit pin number as "part of the security process to make sure that we protect and preserve the integrity of the entire online process," said Hugh Gallagher of Smartmatic, the company the GOP hired to run the election.

The online voting portal will be open from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. on March 22 and will offer links to information about each of the candidates. Voters can go online for a receipt the day after the election and collect coupons as well as donate to the party.

Gallagher said the Florida-based company handles elections for Estonia, but in the United States, Utah will serve as a "gentle introduction because there are a number of people who still have some concerns that Internet voting is not secure or safe."

He said the Utah GOP's presidential preference election will be the first online only election in the United States and "the largest public election" ever conducted via the Internet.

"We have no doubt that from our side we are providing them with a tool that given today's fast life and dynamics is perfect for people who otherwise might not be able to get to caucus," Gallagher said.

Caucus turnout is also expected to get a boost from Salt Lake City hosting a Republican National Committee presidential debate on March 21. Details of the debate have yet to be announced.

And last week, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney gave a speech at the University of Utah urging voters to reject his party's front-runner, business mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump, calling him a fraud and a phony.

Evans said he and other Utah GOP officials have been contacted about adding Romney's name to the Utah ballot. But, the party leader said, only candidates who paid a $7,500 fee and registered with the Utah GOP last year qualify.

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