SALT LAKE CITY — To clamp down on what its supporters called "gamesmanship" and "party raiding" in partisan elections, a Utah lawmaker is driving a bill to cut off the ability to switch party affiliation months before primary elections.
But its critics argue the bill would do more to disenfranchise voters than it would to prevent any type of nefarious activity.
HB197's sponsor, Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, began his bill's presentation to lawmakers on the House Government Operations Committee on Friday by pointing out over 79,000 Utahns switched their party affiliation to vote in last year's Republican primary.
In that election, now Gov. Spencer Cox beat former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. by only 6,319 votes.
"Now it's hard to say whether there was an impact in the election," Teuscher said. "However, there is a significantly high potential for abuse."
Teuscher said there "may have been some Democrats jumping in the race in order to vote for a more moderate candidate." Additionally, he said, "you can easily imagine a scenario when members of the opposite party change their affiliation in order to nominate the weakest candidate to actually give their party a better chance in the general election."
"This is the type of gamesmanship that HB197 is designed to prevent," he said.
HB197 would have originally blocked Utah voters from changing their party affiliation from Jan. 1 of a primary election year all the way up until the primary. But Teuscher put forth a change on Friday to reduce that window of time to start on March 31. That time frame is after party caucuses, but before the primaries, giving parties a chance to "recruit, to motivate their base, and gives general voters more notice," he said.
Teuscher said the time frame in the bill is designed to "cut off party switching in order to prevent party raiding while still allowing for those who want to change their affiliation for legitimate reasons."
The intent, Teuscher said, is to "prevent gamesmanship with the primary process" or what the U.S. Supreme Court termed in a 1973 case as "party raiding"— affiliating with one party in order to nominate the weakest candidate to give the opposite party a better chance. The Supreme Court ruled, Teuscher noted, that states could set time restrictions to prevent last-minute party affiliation.
"The time is right for this," he said. "In the past, there was always a possibility of party raiding. But it was more of a whisper campaign. What we saw in this last year was an overt, strategic campaign to get people who would never consider themselves Republican — who don't resonate with the party principles, and may even despise the party — to change their affiliation and subvert the will of the party."
Ahead of last year's primary, former Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said he he'd joined the GOP and encouraged others to do so in what he called a "rigged election" because of Republican Party rules that allow only party members to participate in a primary. The Democratic Party in Utah allows either their party members or unaffiliated voters to participate in its primaries.
After seeing thousands of Utahns switch their party affiliation last year, Teuscher said "it's critical we find a way now to prevent this gamesmanship from future elections."
Wayne Woodfield, of Lehi, spoke against the bill, arguing that by "blocking" voters from switching, "you're also preventing a much larger group of people from voting in the Republican primaries."
"These are casual voters, voters that maybe were unaffiliated ... they just started thinking about the primary," Woodfield said. "And when they find out they have to register Republican, they think, 'OK that's fine, I mostly vote Republican, so I guess I don't mind affiliating.' And so they do. And then they vote.
"But if this bill passes," he added, "then they're ineligible now. And this is a lot of people. I would imagine that if you guessed as to what these people's motives are, there are a lot more of these than there are strategic affiliation jumpers."
Elizabeth VanDerwerken, a Provo resident and a representative for the Utah chapter of Mormon Women for Ethical Governments, spoke against the bill, saying it would "disenfranchise" voters by further limiting participation in already closed primaries.
"We think this bill exacerbates political divisiveness and extremism by eroding our democratic institutions in addition to silencing voters' voices," she said.
George Chapman, legislative district chairman for the Salt Lake County Republican Party, also urged lawmakers not to support the bill.
"It implies that only one type of philosophy can be in the GOP and discourages participation in our political process," Chapman said. "Our goal should be to provide the best candidate for the ballot. I welcome more voters to declare themselves as a Republican since it will help me and the GOP elect more Republicans in Salt Lake City."
Ultimately, lawmakers on the House Government Operations Committee voted to endorse the bill on a 7-3, party line vote. It now goes to the full House for consideration.