Utahns who registered as Republicans in an effort to vote Sen. Mike Lee out of office are unlikely to sway primary election results significantly.
A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll revealed that if the primary election were today, Lee would win with 67% of Republican voters in Utah backing him. Former state legislator Becky Edwards would be the closest challenger behind him at 19%.
HB197, sponsored by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, requires a March 31 deadline for any party affiliation changes in an even-numbered year. Utahns have rushed to meet the deadline even if they were previously registered Democrats.
“Utah Republicans have fretted about Democrats registering as Republicans to try to influence party nominations for many years,” BYU political science professor Adam Brown said. One example of this was the 2020 Republican gubernatorial nomination.
BYU political science professor Quin Monson said Jon Huntsman’s campaign was overtly encouraging people to register as Republicans so they could nominate him as governor in the primary.
Monson said he assumed this tactic wouldn’t work very well, and ultimately it didn’t when Gov. Spencer Cox beat Huntsman in the primary.
This time around, Monson said he would stand by the same idea: A few thousand non-Republicans or one-time Republican primary voters aren’t likely to make a difference. “This is a Republican primary. It’s an overwhelmingly conservative group of voters,” he said.
Any political science professor would bet on the incumbent — they almost always win, Monson said. While he can’t give a definitive answer on what will happen, he said winning as a challenger is really difficult.
Republican voter registration in Utah has increased from Jan. 3 to March 28 leading up to the deadline for party affiliation change according to data from the Lt. Governor’s Office. The number of registered Democrats has decreased, with the overall number of total voters increasing before dipping down.
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen has seen overall voter registration trends go up in recent years. She said Salt Lake County had more than 600,000 active registered voters in November 2020, which was an increase of nearly 100,000 since 2016.
Primary election time can become confusing because party affiliation matters. During a general election, all the final nominees for the parties are on the ballot and people can vote for any candidate of any party. The “primary election” is really a party nomination process and voters have to be clear about their affiliation in a closed primary, Swensen said.
When the office sent out forms letting voters know the deadline to change party affiliation, she said some of the responses were funny. One person responded and said “I’m a free citizen. And I can change to vote for who, when and how I want.”
“That isn’t quite the way it works in a primary,” Swensen said.
Reasons to switch
The only way Lee is defeated is by a candidate who is a genuine conservative and appeals to Republican conservative voters — not to the crossover Democratic voters, Monson said. “Because there’s a huge psychological barrier, right?”
If someone has spent their life as a Democrat, it’s unpleasant to think about voting in a Republican primary. The people who do switch parties are “extremely politically sophisticated,” Monson said.
Brown said most people who go to a Republican caucus or convention are still Republican — by a lot. He guessed that a solid 90% of people who participate in the Republican primary will also identify as Republicans ideologically.
Most of the races in Utah are foregone as soon as the party nominations are set, Brown said. “That’s what creates incentives for people to get involved in the nomination process.”
For BYU sophomore Siena Christensen, changing party affiliation was a “strategy decision” and an easy way to feel she had a voice in the primary election.
“I’ll be honest, it is kind of strange to be registered as a Republican when I’ve been a Democrat for the past several years of my voting life,” she said.
BYU senior Cassidy Crosby is familiar with changing party affiliation. The Wyoming native voted as a Republican while living there because she said whoever wins the Republican primary is probably going to be the elected official.
Crosby is registering as a Republican again in Utah because she wants to vote for Edwards and doesn’t want Lee to represent her.
“The reality is that a closed primary is kind of ridiculous in a one-party, functionally a one-party state,” Crosby said. While Democrats may get elected to a local leadership position, she said they’re not going to be elected on the national level.
“The Republican party is really where you have your best shot to influence who’s actually going to win,” she said.
Utah’s primary election will be June 28.