Despite record caucus turnout, fewer votes cast for president than in 2008
Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Just over a year ago, Mitt Romney warned Utah leaders that the state GOP's decision to switch from a presidential primary to a party-run caucus election was "a bad decision" that would limit voter turnout.
His prediction was proven correct in Tuesday's presidential preference caucus votes, where Republicans' top pick was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Democrats chose Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Even though Republicans and Democrats reported record numbers of Utahns participating in Tuesday's caucuses, 53 percent more votes were cast in the 2008 presidential primary, the last time there were contested races for both parties.
Put another way, nearly one-third of active registered voters went to the polls eight years ago compared with 22.5 percent who made their presidential preference known Tuesday.
"At that time, everybody said how low turnout was," said state Elections Director Mark Thomas. "Now, with a number that's even less than that, everyone is saying how high it is."
More than 428,000 Utahns voted in the Feb. 5, 2008, Western states presidential primary. On Tuesday, about 200,000 Republicans — including more than 24,000 online — and 80,000 Democrats voted through the caucus process.
The larger than expected turnout for caucuses focused on selecting party delegates meant long, sometimes hourslong lines for voters, delayed results and some caucus locations running out of preprinted ballots.
Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said even though a political party can't run an election as efficiently as the government, the presidential preference caucus process should continue despite the turnout.
"The bottom line is, the numbers are what they are," Evans said. "A caucus system is not going to be as convenient as a primary system. It's not. We're trying to make it more convenient, but we're not trying to be the government."
But Democrats never wanted a presidential caucus. The Utah Democratic Party is still sorting though the paper ballots cast Tuesday to determine how may delegates Sanders and his rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, earned.
"Of course it could have been run better. It could have been run by the state elections office," said Lauren Littlefield, the state Democratic Party's executive director.
House Minority Whip Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said she fears the confusion many new voters felt at the crowded caucuses may keep them from participating in future elections.
"I'm sure we lost people last night. We knew people were walking away when they showed up and saw the crowd," she said, while others gave up after waiting hours and still not being able to vote.
Republican Randy O'Hara, of Sandy, who presided over a GOP caucus meeting Tuesday, said he had concerns with the way the vote was conducted, using blank sheets of paper because no ballots were available.
"With the process I saw last night, fraud could easily have happened," O'Hara said. "I have a lot less confidence in this than a regular voting booth."
Romney, the GOP's 2012 nominee, weighed in on the issue as the 2015 Legislature was considering spending $3 million on a presidential primary and Evans had announced the party was going forward with plans for a caucus instead.
The Republican Party's decision came amid a still-unsettled legal battle over legislation known as SB54 that changes the candidate nomination process to allow candidates to bypass the party's traditional caucus and convention system.
"Every Utah voter deserves to have their vote counted in the selection of the Republican Party's nominee for president in 2016," Romney wrote in a March 4, 2015, letter to Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders.
But with no interest from the GOP, the Legislature's Republican supermajority decided not to fund a separate presidential primary, meaning Democrats had to put together plans for a caucus vote, too.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who backed the presidential primary legislation last year, said lawmakers need to take another look at whether the caucus vote worked before the next run for the White House in 2020.
"It's not whether we have a caucus again or whether we have a primary next, but how do you strengthen the voice of the people," Bramble said. "There were long lines. Precincts ran out of ballots. It's clear there were challenges."
Bramble, the sponsor of SB54, said if the GOP hadn't been so preoccupied with the lawsuit against the state, the caucuses might have gone smoother. The goal for both the party and lawmakers, he said, should be increasing voter participation.
Rich McKeown agreed. McKeown is executive co-chairman of Count My Vote, which started as a citizens initiative to replace the caucus and convention system with a direct primary but compromised with lawmakers over SB54.
He said there was "a marked difference in participation" between 2008 and 2016.
"We ought absolutely to have a presidential primary in four years," McKeown said.
Using a caucus to determine who Utahns want to see their political parties nominate for president, he said, is "an awkward way to vote and it's not reflective of the general population."
Evans said the nominating process belongs to the political parties and suggested allowing the government to be involved leads to trouble.
"This is the deal with the devil," he said, because the government won't "maintain its space and not intrude in the party's business," as the party believes the state did with the new nomination process.
While Evans said he realizes there are always going to be complaints about party-run caucuses, he made it clear it's up to the GOP whether the caucus vote for president continues.
"It's goes back to this core issue, and that simply is at the end of the day, it's the political party that selects the preference method," Evans said. "Even if the state had a primary and it wasn't the one we were doing, the results wouldn't count."
Contributing: Dennis Romboy
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