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SALT LAKE CITY — There are nearly as many Utah voters unaffiliated with a political party as there are Republicans — and some in this sizable group could be boxed out of the presidential primary in March because they will not automatically be mailed ballots for Super Tuesday.
State and local officials as well as party leaders are hoping to prevent this by informing unaffiliated voters of what they need to do to cast their votes. It’s expansive work — Utah Elections Director Justin Lee said there are 509,374 active unaffiliated voters compared to 682,038 active Republicans and 190,655 active registered Democrats — but county officials are taking it in stride.
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen mailed letters to more than 210,000 unaffiliated voters explaining why they won’t automatically receive a ballot.
“We’ve already received over 7,000 of those letters back from unaffiliated voters. They’ve been very enthusiastic about it and hopefully we will continue to get thousands of those back so we can get ballots out in the mail to people,” Swensen said last week.
Letters included a form giving voters the option to affiliate with either major party, or opt to simply receive a Democrat ballot instead. Swensen said the letter cautioned unaffiliated voters that if they choose to affiliate with the Republican or Democratic party, they must do so by Feb. 3 — 30 days before the March 3 Super Tuesday primary. Those who want to vote by mail in the Democratic race without formally affiliating need to request a ballot by Feb. 25.
Because Utah’s Republicans have a closed primary, only voters affiliated with the GOP can cast a ballot in the primary that includes President Donald Trump and five other Republican challengers. Anyone can vote in the Democratic presidential primary, which includes more than a dozen candidates.
However, if deadlines are missed, people can go to their city’s polling location on Election Day or during the early voting period and affiliate or request a ballot in person. Swensen noted, however, that if a voter is already affiliated with a party, they cannot make that change on March 3.
Salt Lake County is not the only one reaching out to voters.
The state sent a recommendation letter to the counties explaining how to inform voters about the upcoming presidential primary, which Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner said was helpful, especially for smaller counties as they could use it as a guide to construct their own.
Brian McKenzie, Davis County chief deputy clerk, said his office sent letters to 65,000 unaffiliated voters and received 4,200 back as of Jan. 7.
Weber County elections director Ryan Cowley reported sending out around 40,000. Registration is still underway, but he estimated receiving around 2,200 responses with expectations that the number will rise significantly as more trickle in.
Rozan Mitchell, Utah County elections director, reported sending 96,200 letters to unaffiliated voters.
Utah County is also taking steps to encourage more young voters to participate in elections.
We are looking for ways to make things more mobile and tech friendly and make it appeal to a different demographic of voters.
–Brian McKenzie, Davis County chief deputy clerk
“We are looking for ways to make things more mobile and tech friendly and make it appeal to a different demographic of voters,” Mitchell said, explaining that while mailing letters work great for older people, it tends to be less effective with younger generations.
The 2020 presidential primary is different from the vote held in 2016. For one, the state will run it, not the political parties.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was one voice advocating for the change when he called for a return to state-run primaries following 2016 caucus voting that some criticized as hampered by long lines, poor organization and low overall turnout.
The county clerks did not run primary voting in 2016. Rather, volunteers ushered crowds and collected ballots at their respective Republican or Democratic caucus meetings.
The state Republican and Democratic parties reported approximately 280,000 participants in the 2016 caucuses. In contrast, the state-led presidential primary in 2008 saw 428,000 votes cast.
Powers Gardner said she feels this year’s return to a state-run primary will drive turnout in a positive direction.
She explained that many people don’t take the time to attend neighborhood caucus meetings. Voters have additional options this time with the mail-in ballots — one way being the counties’ effort to contact unaffiliated voters and inform them about how they can vote.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant echoed the importance of informing unaffiliated voters about the upcoming election and said county clerks have done what they can given the circumstances, but more could be done. He said the Utah Democratic Party is taking strides to inform voters about the steps needed to participate in the primary.
Merchant also commended the state’s decision to join Super Tuesday, saying he believes the change will iron out some of the issues that occurred four years ago.
Lee said he also anticipates the state-run presidential primary’s organization will be better.
“We don’t anticipate the same kind of wait times or confusion that people experienced at their caucus meetings,” he said.
Lee explained that the presidential primary date was moved to March 3 by the Legislature in “hopes of making Utah more relevant to the presidential primary election scene.” It’ll be the first time Utah has participated in Super Tuesday voting, where 14 states will cast ballots for presidential candidates.
Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown said he thinks Utah will see a significant increase in voting this year thanks to the date shift.
“As party chair, everything we do is to get a higher turnout,” Brown said expressing his approval of the change.
Brown said the party is doing everything it can from a media standpoint to inform unaffiliated voters on how they can vote for a Republican and plans to amp up efforts as March 3 draws nearer.
Initially, two dozen prospective nominees filed to appear on Utah’s presidential primary ballot — 17 of whom were Democrats. However, the field has narrowed as Democrats California Sen. Kamala Harris, Julian Castro and writer Marianne Williamson dropped out of the race.
According to Lee, withdrawn candidates will still appear on the ballot because county clerks have already started working with printers.
“We will let voters know if candidates withdraw by updating websites and posting information at polling locations,” he said.
The active candidates in the Democratic field in Utah are former Vice President Joe Biden; former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; Utah resident Nathan Bloxham; former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; billionaire Tom Steyer; entrepreneur Andrew Yang; and businessman Roque De La Fuente.
In addition to Trump, five other Republican candidates will appear on the Utah ballot: businessman Robert Ardini; California attorney Matthew John Matern; former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh;, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld; and entrepreneur Bob Ely. California businessman Roque De La Fuente — father of similarly named Democrat candidate Roque De La Fuente — withdrew from the race.