Only a relative handful of "unaffiliated" voters chose to reregister as Republicans to participate in that party's June 24 primary election, according to new figures provided by the lieutenant governor's office.
That statistic is important because the majority of all Utah voters 55 percent are unaffiliated. But because Utah generally votes so heavily Republican anyway, that party's primary often chooses not only its nominees but also the eventual winners (who often face only token opposition in the general election).
So if unaffiliated voters choose not to vote in the primary, it means few Utah voters are likely choosing the eventual winners.
In last month's primary, for example, voters dumped incumbent U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, for challenger Jason Chaffetz by a 60-40 margin. And in a bitter state treasurer's race, Richard Ellis defeated Mark Walker by a 59-41 margin.
The Republican primary in Utah is "closed," meaning only registered Republicans may vote in it. However, voters who are unaffiliated with any party may reregister at the polls to declare themselves as Republicans, and then vote. Utah Democrats allow anyone of any party to vote in their primaries.
New statistics estimate that between just 0.7 percent and 3.3 percent of those who voted in last month's Republican primary were unaffiliated voters who reregistered, at least for the day, as Republicans.
"It depends on which figures you use. We don't have a precise way of measuring that," said Mark Thomas, office administrator for the lieutenant governor's office.
He said figures show that 2,950 people registered as Republicans on Election Day or from June 10 to June 24 when early voting was available. That amounts to 3.3 percent of those who voted in the GOP primary.
New-voter registration is prohibited by law in that time frame, so reregistration should have occurred only among unaffiliated voters choosing to participate in the Republican primary. "But some of the (county) clerk's offices could have been reporting earlier registration changes a bit late" to the state, Thomas said.
Meanwhile, state figures show that 1,284 people reregistered on Election Day itself, or about 1.4 percent of all those who participated in the primary.
But county clerks reported that only 707 people statewide (0.7 percent of those who voted) registered using a special Election Day form but Thomas said county clerks may simply have failed to click the proper boxes on report forms for all who reregistered on Election Day.
Only 89,855 people voted in the GOP primary last month. That turnout was 14.3 percent of all people registered as Republicans on Election Day, and 5.7 percent of all Republicans and unaffiliated voters (and 5.3 percent of all Utah voters).
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, a Democrat, said people often complain to her office, "that they are frustrated with having to affiliate with a party. They do not want to affiliate with a particular party, so that has suppressed voter turnout."
Until 1994, Utah voters did not register by party and could pick a ballot from any party during primary elections. That changed after some Republicans blamed their defeat on Democrats or unaffiliated voters raiding their election to choose a weaker candidate.
Calls to GOP leaders for comment were not immediately returned. But Utah Republican Party Chairman Stan Lockhart previously defended the closed primary by saying the GOP primary is to pick GOP nominees. He also said he did not expect an big influx of unaffiliated voters (including those who may be Democrats at heart) to try to sway that election."In the voting process, there is some basic level of trust you have to have with voters," Lockhart said previously. "I believe that by and large, most won't do it (reregister as a Republican) for a one-day convenience."