SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Democrats can't afford to hold their own online presidential primary election next year, state Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said Monday.
"It's just more than we can handle at this point," Corroon said, citing a $100,000 price tag for "just the mechanics" of allowing Utahns to vote online for their Democratic presidential pick.
Instead, Utahns will have to attend a Democratic caucus meeting to vote in the party's primary that so far has been dominated by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who would be the first woman nominated by a major political party.
Democrats were disappointed, Corroon said, that the GOP-controlled 2015 Utah Legislature didn't fund the presidential primary. Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, had asked lawmakers to spend $3 million on a presidential primary election.
But then, state GOP Chairman James Evans — who is battling the state over a law that takes away some of the caucus and convention system's power — announced the party would hold a presidential caucus rather than a primary election.
Former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, now a Utah resident, tried and failed to sway lawmakers into funding a primary by criticizing the party for again appearing "to reject wide participation" in the elections process.
Evans said he made the move to attract more Utahns to the party's annual caucus night meetings. He said there will be an online option to vote for a presidential nominee for Republicans who register to attend their caucus meetings.
"We think it's going to lead the way for the state to take a much more serious approach to try to increase voter turnout," Evans said, calling the ability to vote online "a logical step."
While the GOP is still working out the details, he said $100,000 is a "reasonable ballpark" estimate and may be paid by charging presidential candidates a "nominal fee" as well as selling advertising — but not to the candidates themselves.
Both the Republicans and Democrats are scheduled to hold their annual caucus nights on March 22. The state's existing June primary election is past the deadlines set by both the national Republican and Democratic parties.
Rep. John Cox, R-Ephraim, the sponsor of the failed legislation that would have set an earlier date for the 2016 presidential primary and allowed military and disabled voters to vote online, said his bill was a "casualty" of the GOP's legal fight.
"I kind of got caught in the middle of that whole discussion," Cox said of the GOP's lawsuit over SB54, which allows candidates to bypass the party nomination process and instead gather voter signatures to earn a place on the ballot.
Cox said he has concerns about a party-run online election, especially given what the GOP is willing to invest. A bill he attempted to get passed in 2014 would have spent nearly $2 million to ready the state for an online presidential primary.
"If it fails, or there's a security breach, you've set the movement back a decade," Cox said. "You can't do it halfway. It will take resources to do it in a way that's safe and secure. If you don't do it that way, don't do it at all."
Cox said he can "completely sympathize" with the Democrats' frustration over the state not paying for a primary. "I wish we could have come up with a solution that worked for all involved."
Corroon said "the doors are closed once again on open public participation," because the party can't come up with the money needed to make it easier for voters to participate in the election.
"It's hard enough to raise money to run our operations and support candidates," he said. "To raise money to run a six-figure presidential primary in a state where it doesn't make a huge difference is not worth the financial and manpower burden."
Count My Vote leader Rich McKeown said he'd still like to see the state hold a presidential primary. The bipartisan organization withdrew an initiative establishing direct primary elections as part of the SB54 compromise.
Party control of an election "makes people suspicious," he said. "We ought to be exercising extreme caution about that and we ought to recognize this is a function, running elections, that states engage in."
McKeown said switching from a presidential primary to a caucus "causes us some concern because we think this is a place people should be able to express themselves directly."
State Elections Director Mark Thomas said a primary would be preferable to using caucus meetings to select presidential candidates, particularly in an election year with no incumbent.
"It's an open presidential seat. We know people want to vote for president, but obviously, the party decided to look in a different direction," Thomas said. "It is what it is, I guess."