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Bill puts state in charge of presidential primaries to avoid 'organized chaos'

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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill requiring the state to hold presidential primary elections to avoid the long lines and low turnout associated with last year's party caucus voting cleared the Utah Legislature on Thursday.

HB204 passed the House 67-3 and the Senate 25-1. It now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert for his consideration.

But that's not without a slash to the bill's funding request, meant to cover costs of the next presidential primary in 2020.

The bill originally requested $750,000, but lawmakers only set aside $100,000. The rest of the money to fund the next primary — expected to cost about $3 million — will have to be appropriated over the next three years.

Despite the cut, there was no debate on the House or Senate floors prior to the bill's passage.

In an earlier committee meeting, bill sponsor Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, acknowledged it won't be easy to cover the $3 million price tag for a statewide primary, but she urged lawmakers to support the bill to avoid what she called the "organized chaos" of last year's presidential preference party caucuses.

"This bill leaves running presidential primaries to the experts — our state elections office and the county clerks," Arent said. "Why? Because political parties should be in the business of trying to win elections, not run them."

Arent spoke of countless calls she received from constituents after the caucus night, complaining of circumstances that blocked them from casting their votes, including long lines that impacted voter turnout.

"There were computer crashes, there were places where ballots ran out, there were people who couldn't vote because there was no parking," she said. "We had all sorts of problems."

Arent said 53 percent fewer people voted in last year's presidential caucus than Utah's primaries in 2008.

"We learned our volunteers are well-meaning but are not in the position to run presidential caucuses," she said. "It needs to be a professionally run primary."

Arent also pointed out that Mitt Romney warned Utah leaders in 2015 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.

Both Utah GOP Chairman James Evans and Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon supported the bill.

Evans said the Utah GOP was "never opposed" to a state-run primary, and that Republicans have yet to decide what they'll do for the 2020 presidential election. Email: Twitter: KatieMcKellar1

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