Still reeling from last year’s jam-packed presidential caucus meetings for Republicans and Democrats alike, the House Government Operations Committee considered Wednesday several measures to help mitigate the situation.
HB 204 – Presidential Primary Amendments, sponsored by Representative Patrice Arent (Democrat – Millcreek), would require the Legislature to fund a presidential primary election every four years. The bill calls for a yearly appropriation of $725,000, with $3 million being the ultimate cost for a statewide primary.
In the 2008 presidential primary, more than 428,000 Utahns voted. That number dropped 53 percent in 2016 to approximately 280,000 – 200,000 Republicans and 80,000 Democrats. Arent said not having a primary harmed, in particular, the elderly, disabled, and working class, due to long lines, a lack of parking, and limited hours.
Utah Democratic Party Chair Peter Corroon said that about 200 people helped run Democratic caucus meetings all over the state, but disaster still ensued because there were so many people in attendance. He believes a primary would be far more appropriate. “We can run a convention with 2,500 delegates, but when we have 80,000 people who come to vote it just doesn’t work out very well,” said Corroon. “We believe that an eight-hour primary is a lot better than a two-hour caucus to host 80,000 people.”
Utah Republican Party Chair James Evans says his party hasn’t decided whether or not they will participate in future primaries. However, the GOP definitely supports the funding of a primary for political parties who wish to go that route. “We do support the funding of it. That preserves that option because that’s four years down the road and I think better be prepared than not be prepared,” said Evans.
Former Utah State Senator Pat Jones related how she wasn’t able to participate in the 2016 caucus because she was recovering from major back surgery. On March 10, Jones had four rods placed in her back. 12 days later, she went to her caucus meeting to vote but ended up encountering long lines. Jones waited about 10 minutes and couldn’t take it any longer, so she went to her neighborhood caucus meeting to kill some time.
“By the time the meeting was over, I looked at the line. It was still long. So I went to this meeting unable to exercise my right to vote. I would’ve loved to have been able to vote in another way,” said Jones. “Finding parking was a disaster. I’m a healthy person, but I think those kinds of things can happen to anyone. When we hear about these people who have a disability who are infirmed in other ways, it also happens to some of us who have surgeries and have other problems that cannot make the ballot box at that time.”
Dr. Ellen Brady, who serves as Democratic Legislative District Chair of House District 46 in Cottonwood Heights, said a typical turnout in her district is about 200 people. “We had 2,000 people that night. We had planned for many more than usual, but we were simply overwhelmed. My house district includes two congressional districts, so we had issues of worrying about which ballot they got. We had many people trying to register that night,” said Brady.
“We had people lined up for blocks. It was chaos, it was inappropriate, and, ultimately, it ended up hurting the actual caucus process itself because people couldn’t stay for the caucus so the efforts to build party infrastructure through that process were harmed as well as the ballot process.” Brady also believes the limited hours of a caucus meeting versus an all-day primary skews the demographics, as evidenced by differing results throughout the country of primary states and caucus states.
“I think the fact there are so many people that are here that have testified on both sides of the political aisle is very telling,” Jones said of the nonpartisan nature of HB 204. The committee voted 8-1 to advance the bill.
Government Operations also considered two other bills aimed at mitigating the situation. HB 230 – Elections Revisions, sponsored by Representative Brad Daw (Republican – Orem), requires counties to pay return postage on absentee ballots when elections are being conducted entirely by absentee ballot. The bill passed out on a 6-3 vote.
HB 159 – Amendments to Voter Registration, sponsored by Representative Steve Handy (Republican – Layton), provides that Utahns who apply for renew their driver’s license or state identification card will be automatically registered to vote unless the individual decides to opt out. Lawmakers felt the bill needed changes and unanimously voted to hold the bill.