Deseret Morning News graphic

For more than a decade, Utahns have seen poor voter turnout in many primary elections, yet little is being done to correct the lack of citizen participation in picking political-party nominees, observers say.

Research by the Utah Elections Office shows that since a high turnout of nearly 50 percent in a September primary in 1992, and since the Legislature's move from a September to a June primary, no primary election across the state has seen more than a 20 percent turnout.

The June 27 primary this year saw 13.39 percent of voters participate across the state, the state elections office found. In some locales, turnout was better, although turnout was poor in Wasatch Front counties.

For some political analysts, like Hinckley Institute of Politics executive director Kirk Jowers, the low primary turnout is a scandal — and one that should be addressed by the Legislature.

But for others, like Utah Democratic Party executive director Todd Taylor, the primary turnout in many cases "is just bad, bad math" and few changes are needed. "Garfield County had nearly 50 percent turnout in this year's primary," Taylor noted.

Still, Utahns don't much like the current June primary, according to a new Dan Jones & Associates poll of 900 registered voters, conducted for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent.

Jones found that 14 percent of those surveyed who didn't vote in the primary said they skipped the election because the Utah Republican Party, which historically has more primaries than do Democrats, requires that a primary voter be a registered Republican to get a ballot. Six percent of those surveyed said they're registered in a party other than the Republican Party and so skipped their local GOP primary contest.

So, around 40 percent of primary-election skippers didn't cast a ballot because the primary was held in June, or they didn't want to declare themselves Republicans to get a primary GOP ballot.

Thirty-eight percent told Jones they just were not interested in the primary candidates so didn't bother to vote. And 28 percent gave other excuses on why they didn't vote in the primary, Jones found.

"Isn't it sad that 38 percent said they weren't interested in the primary races," said Gigi Brandt, president of the Utah League of Women Voters. One of the league's goals is greater participation in elections.

"We opposed the switch from the September primary to a June primary, and we continue to oppose the June primary today," said Brandt. "The political party (bosses) may like a June primary because it helps their particular candidates. But taxpayers pay for these primary elections. And what's good for a political party may not be good for citizens."

Utah's election cycles — from candidate filings in March, to April and May conventions, to June primary — are out of whack, Brandt said.

"Candidates have to file by mid-March. Too early. People are not even focused on elections then."

Poor turnout in Utah primaries reflects a national problem, said Jowers: "gerrymandering" of U.S. House and legislative districts across the country. "That leads to few really contested races, less interest and less voter turnout," he said.

Taylor agrees that high primary turnout is tied to interesting races. "Competitive primaries solves" the low turnout problem, he believes.

The question is, how do you get interesting, contested primaries? And why in the world would part-time legislators want to create a system that has highly contested primaries, when they themselves may be forced into such a contested primary?

The Utah Legislature — like legislatures in many other states — draws its own legislative-district boundaries, as well as the districts for the U.S. House. But it's the political parties themselves that decide how their nominees are picked.

And Utah has what Jowers defines as an awkward and dysfunctional "dual nomination process."

Both the Republicans and Democrats hold nominating conventions — county conventions in April, state conventions in May. Delegates to those conventions vote on party candidates. Currently, both parties have a 60 percent threshold: If candidates get 60 percent or more of the delegate vote in their districts, they win the party nomination outright and there is no primary.

If no candidate gets 60 percent, the top two candidates face off in a late June primary, with about six weeks between convention and primary vote.

"It's depressing that no one seems to care" about low primary voter turnout, Jowers said. The current election process is "confusing and bewildering — people don't understand it, so they don't bother to vote."

Before 1992, Utah primaries — paid for by the general taxpayer, despite the fact that the primary is actually a political party function — were held either in September or August.

But after the highly contested, big races in 1992, leaders of both the Democrats and Republicans were sick of costly and divisive primary battles going on all summer long. They wanted to pick their party nominees earlier, like in June, which would then allow their candidates to fund raise all summer long, preparing for the fall campaign.

Taylor said the "dual nomination process is pure genius. Parties have a real role to play in the nomination, not just limited to exaggerated policy positions" that take place if all candidates stand in a primary election.

"If party delegates can't make up their mind who is the best, then you have the public make that decision in the primary election," said Taylor — a fall-back position that helps everyone. Taylor doesn't, however, like the fact that the Utah Republican Party makes primary voters register as Republicans to get a GOP primary ballot.

But GOP leaders maintain that only registered Republicans should be allowed to vote in a party nominating process — and their primaries have been closed since the early 2000s.

Arguing that even an interesting primary doesn't mean a good turnout in June, Jowers said the Chris Cannon/John Jacob GOP primary last month had national attention but a poor voter turnout nonetheless.

Jowers said June primaries "just don't get people engaged."

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