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A bill to open Utah’s primaries died without being heard. The people behind it aren’t giving up

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A bill to open Utah’s primaries died without being heard. The people behind it aren’t giving up

Mar 04, 2024 | 7:40 pm ET
By McKenzie Romero
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A bill to open Utah’s primaries died without being heard. The people behind it aren’t giving up
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People4Utah is seeking a top-two primary election for Utah, where all candidates would appear on one ballot for all voters and the top two would advance to the general election. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

As Utahns head to the polls in the state’s semi-closed primary election system later this year, only some will get to vote.

Only registered Republicans may vote for candidates in the party’s primary.

Registered Democrats will automatically receive a ballot for their party’s primary, and unaffiliated voters who are good at paying attention to deadlines may request one.

Third parties do their own thing.

And everyone else? Their ballot will only include nonpartisan races.

That’s the argument People4Utah makes in its campaign to open Utah’s primaries in a top-two style, meaning all candidates would appear on the same ballot, and every voter could vote for them. As the name suggests, the top two vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, would advance to the general election.

The case for top-two

Supporters of top-two primaries argue the model will increase voter representation and encourage the election of more moderate candidates. 

When ballots arrive in November, rather than having a choice between a more extreme candidate from each side, selected only by members of their own party months before in the primary election, voters could instead end up with two candidates chosen by a wider group of people who represent more general opinions, says Barbara Stallone, People4Utah’s executive director. 

Stallone, who has been involved in Utah politics for 20 years, including 15 as a part of Salt Lake County Republican Party leadership, said changing the primary system would bring more representation to voters, pointing to areas like the west side of Salt Lake City, as an example. There, she said, after Republicans, the largest group of voters are unaffiliated, followed by Democrats. 

“So we really have a large percentage of unaffiliated voters that are completely squeezed out of the system right now, if they lean Republican,” Stallone said, noting that those voters wouldn’t be able to request a Republican ballot the way that an unaffiliated voter who wants to vote in the Democratic primary could.

It also lends itself well to vote by mail, Stallone said.

A top-two primary could keep candidates accountable to voters clear through the general election, rather than allowing their races to be essentially sewn up once they have won a primary in a safe district — the outcome of as many as 81% of races in Utah, according to Stallone and People4Utah’s website.

“I think it will give us better results in our elected officials,” Stallone said. “Because again, you’re going to have to be talking to people through an entire year, and connecting and hearing their concerns and deciding your policy positions over a longer period of time.”

Polling done by Integrity Matters LLC — the company run by Daryl Acumen, former vice chairman of the Utah County Republican Party — at the request of People4Utah in December found support for the idea, drawing responses from 1,167 Utahns who voted in three of the last four elections and representative of the number of people in the state registered with different parties, according to results provided by the group. 

With a margin of error plus or minus 2.67 percentage points, 70% of respondents supported the idea of a top-two primary, with 28% opposing it and 3% undecided. 

Broken down by party, the poll showed 61% of Republicans, 84% of Democrats and 79% of unaffiliated voters were in favor of a top-two primary. 

Multi-party primaries have been used in five states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, with California and Washington using a top-two format. While supporters of top-two say it invites more moderate candidates onto the ballot, the NCSL says, opponents say it reduces voter choice because two candidates from the same party may end up advancing to the general election.

California has used the top-two format for 12 years since adopting it in 2012, and with the system still facing criticism, the nonpartisan nonprofit Unite America says its analysis shows that California is the only state that has reduced polarization. It credits top-two primaries. 

Meanwhile, other states in the West, including Utah, are among those where polarization has most increased, the analysis found. 

The short life of HB294

During the Utah Legislature’s 45-day general session, Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, introduced a bill that would have opened up the state’s primary elections for a top-two race. 

HB294 arrived at the House Rules Committee in mid January, the group that decides which bills get assigned to a committee to be heard, and there it sat. When the Legislature adjourned just before midnight last Friday, the bill died.

Ward’s interest in taking up the bill comes from his agreement that if someone is being elected, every constituent who will ultimately be governed by them should have a chance to participate in that vote. In districts that are basically assured to go to a Democrat or, more likely, a Republican, the vote that matters isn’t the general election, he said, it’s the primary.

“With our system right now, not all people get to vote in every primary election. You have to belong to a party or else you don’t even get sent a ballot for that process,” said Ward. 

Gabby Saunders, communications chair for People4Utah, wasn’t surprised to see the bill get stuck in the rules committee. 

Ward’s top-two primary bill would not have altered either party’s nomination process, Saunders noted, meaning candidates would still have been able to get on the ballot either by being nominated at their party’s convention or by collecting signatures. It also wouldn’t change how the state votes for president.

Any future attempts to run a top-two primary bill would require sufficient public interest and support from legislative leadership, Ward said.

“If we can’t get, you know, broad spread interest in conversation, then it will just kind of be a little niche bill that got run by me and never came out of rules. But if more people talk about it and think that, yeah, that’s what they want, that they don’t like the current system and wish it was a little different, then that’s a conversation that I hope does happen,” Ward said. 

Legislators took aim at another effort to change Utah’s elections this session, with a bill seeking an early end to the state’s ranked choice voting pilot project, saying it caused confusion for the cities that tried it and lacked support. The bill, HB290, ultimately failed.

Though HB294 did not advance, Stallone said she is “definitely not discouraged.”

“It would have been nice if, you know, people had been allowed to have a conversation around it and have a straight up yes or no vote. That would have been nice. But you know, that’s not always how it works up there,” Stallone said.

For now, Saunders said, the focus remains on educating Utahns about what a top-two primary does and how it could work in the state.

“That really is the main thing, is just continuing with education, and reaching out to people. I’m continuing to build this coalition of people that want change and are ready to have it so we can be successful next session,” said Saunders, who started working in Utah politics at just 16 and now has more than a decade under her belt.

Stallone agreed, noting that change to Utah’s election system comes slowly, but is possible. 

“The more that people understand the benefits of this system, and this style, the more pressure we can bring to bear to move the bill out of rules next year,” she said.