Proposal would make state and county governments pay for presidential primary elections

Utah State CapitolRemember the real problems in the March 2016 presidential primary voting in Utah – for both Republicans and Democrats?

Boy, many of the state legislators sure do, and there are around a dozen bills introduced in the 2017 Legislature dealing with some aspects of last year’s elections.

Well, Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, wants to fix one of the largest concerns: The political parties organizing and paying for presidential primaries.

Her HB204 would make the state and counties responsible for carrying out a presidential primary every four years.

And she would have $750,000 each year set aside for the estimated $3 million cost of selecting which party nominees its voters desire.

As you may recall, on the mass-meeting night in March of last year thousands of Utahns tried to – and some actually did – vote for the GOP, Democratic and other party presidential candidates.

In Utah, Sen. Bernie Sanders won the Democratic vote, and Sen. Ted Cruz won the GOP pick. Both, however, ended up losing their party races.

And in Utah that night, things didn’t go so well.

Because the state and county clerks DID NOT run those elections, there were limited voting places and in many cases long lines and near chaos.

Thousands of voters likely didn’t bother to cast a ballot, or got to their mass meetings and just gave up because the lines were so long.

The Utah Republican Party hoped to avoid those problems by holding an online vote – but while party leaders thought it went well, some party members weren’t able to properly cast their ballots via computers.

In any case, the state has run presidential primaries before – usually when the majority Republicans in the Legislature wanted to pay for it because they had an open race; and didn’t fund the primary when their president was seeking a second term and the minority Democrats had an open presidential primary.

In 2016, said Arent, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and both GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox – the state’s official election officer – all asked the Legislature to fund the primary.

But the Utah GOP had already said it would handle its own primary process – and so no need for taxpayers to fund a primary.

The result was, well, certainly mixed.

Arent says for the good of Utah and American democracy, “professions should run our presidential primaries, just like they do our other elections.”

Her bill specifically does not set a presidential primary date for Utah. There could be real political infighting there.

So the actual voting date will come later – not this year and likely not even in 2018.

“You know, a lot of people believed we had record turnout in 2016” presidential primary voting, said Arent. And that is what caused the long lines – some stretching for blocks – at the March caucus meetings.

No, she added. When all the votes were counted, the turnout in 2016 was 53 percent LESS than the turn out in 2008, the last time both political parties had open presidential races.

One of the complaints is that in recent years by the time Utah got around to setting its presidential primary date – and the vote was held – one or both of the major parties had already picked their nominee – because he or she had gotten so many votes from earlier-voting states the Utah vote, in reality, didn’t impact the contests.

And in such cases, Utah spending $3 million on what ended up being an irrelevant primary was unwise.

But certainly 2016 proved that idea wrong – both major party candidates were still in play when Utah voted. In fact, many candidates campaigned in Utah, including Bernie Sanders, John Kasich and, of course, Donald Trump.

And by NOT picking a Utah presidential primary date, there is the real possibility that Utah could set an earlier date, which would make its presidential primary really mean something. That, in turn, would lead to candidates visiting, and campaigning in, Utah.

In any case, says Arent, it is just wrong to depend on party organizations and their volunteers to conduct a fair and organized, statewide, election – without the resources, training, or money to do so.

“Parties should be in the business of winning elections, not running them,” said Arent.

She is looking for some Republican co-sponsors on her bill. “I hope this can be a bipartisan effort – state and county election professions should be running our elections.”

As of now, state election officials say, Herbert has not taken a position on Arent’s bill, and the $750,000 is not in his recommended budget for next fiscal year.