SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns are going to get their turn next month to vote in the Republican and Democratic presidential nomination race, but not in a traditional primary election.
This year, Utah is using the political party-run caucuses being held on March 22 to determine which candidates will get the state's support at party nominating conventions this summer.
Both Republicans and Democrats attending neighborhood caucus meetings that evening can cast their ballots in the presidential race. Republicans also have the option of voting online in the presidential race.
The 2015 Legislature decided not to fund a $3 million presidential primary after the Utah GOP — amid the ongoing battle over changes lawmakers made to the overall candidate nomination process — announced it was holding a presidential caucus.
Bryan Smith, executive director of the Utah Republican Party, said several companies have been hired to conduct the election, dubbed the nation's first to be conducted completely online.
Smith declined to talk about the price tag for the election, but Republicans visiting the party's website, utah.gop, are asked to contribute $5 toward the cost, and presidential candidates had to pay $7,500 to get on the ballot.
"We want to make sure you don't think there's any funny business going on," Smith said of the election process that requires Republicans to register online by March 15 to be able to vote in the presidential caucus.
Starting on March 16, pin numbers will be sent to registered voters so they can access the ballot between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. on caucus day, March 22. Republicans will not have to attend their caucus meetings to vote for president.
A dozen Republicans paid to get on the Utah ballot, but several candidates — including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — have already dropped out, and more may follow before the state's caucus vote.
Those who want to vote for a Democratic candidate for president will have to attend a Democratic caucus meeting, said Lauren Littlefield, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party.
Unlike Republicans, which allow only members of their party to participate in the caucus, she said anyone can fill out a paper ballot for president at the start of their neighborhood Democratic caucus meeting.
Littlefield said Democrats couldn't afford the price tag for setting up online voting.
"We would absolutely prefer a primary for several reasons. When the state runs an election, it's clearly fairly run, and it's really open. It’s easy to participate in," Littlefield said.
Senate Minority Caucus Manager Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, a former state party chairman, said the presidential nomination race should be an opportunity to get more Democrats involved in the political process.
Instead, Dabakis said, not having a primary will limit the turnout.
He said the decision to use caucus meetings to choose presidential nominees "goes back to the backroom Republicans deciding everything in their smoke-filled private caucuses."
But Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he liked adding the presidential election to the caucus meetings where delegates who have the power to nominate candidates at party conventions will be selected.
Because the contested law known as SB54 now allows candidates to bypass the traditional caucus and convention system by gathering voter signatures, Weiler said there's concern "no one will go or only extremists will go" to caucus meetings.
"I think, hopefully, it will drive a more reflective sample of people to the caucuses," he said of Utah's shift from a presidential primary to a presidential caucus. "I hope it goes well and we keep on doing it."
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said caucuses "tend to attract fewer participants and more ideologically extreme participants."
But the GOP's decision to offer online voting could change that dynamic, he said.
"I give the Republicans a lot of credit for trying to find ways to get more people to participate," Karpowitz said. He said he's interested in seeing what the impact is of having the presidential race decided in caucuses.
In the last presidential election, in 2012, Utah was the last state in the nation to vote with a June primary. Four years earlier, Utah was one of 24 states casting presidential ballots in early February, on what was called "Super Duper Tuesday."
Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said even though Utah is voting about midway through this election cycle, the outcome of the caucuses may still be significant.
Perry said Utahns have never warmed to longtime GOP front-runner Donald Trump, who came in second in last week's Iowa caucuses to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio close behind.
And there has also been strong support in Utah for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who nearly beat the Democratic front-runner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Iowa.
"We have been predicting pretty well the candidates who have been emerging," Perry said. "I think we have been a good gauge for how the candidates have been doing in terms of actual votes as opposed to popularity."
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