Episode 4 – Utah Primary Elections

Welcome to Braving Politics Podcast! I’m Emily Bergeson, candidate with the United Utah Party. 

In this episode, we will be talking about Utah Primary Elections. 

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves diving into the Primary elections, I’d like to explain the difference between primary elections, and the general elections. It’s often confusing when you see signs go up in June and you’re getting calls, texts, and e-mails from candidates. There are public debates and lots of conversations about who to vote for. It starts to feel a lot like the general election, doesn’t it? But then the ballot comes in the mail and you look through all the names and you notice a few of them are missing.

Primary elections are specific to political parties — Political parties like the Republican Party, Democratic Party, United Utah Party, the Constitution Party, Green Party, Libertarian Party to name a few. All of those people who are listed on the ballot belong to just one political party. They do not represent all of the candidates for the position, just all of the ones running with one political party.

Not every position and not every political party has a primary election though. In order to have a primary election you need two things: You need more than one candidate competing for the same position AND you need a close enough race that there isn’t a clear winner. 

The first part is determined in March when candidates for elected positions file with the county or state office. There may be only one candidate declaring candidacy, there might be 20. Each candidate either associates with a political party or runs independently. Independent candidates have a separate qualification process for getting on the ballot for the general election and automatically independent candidates don’t have to worry about a primary election. 

For candidates running with a political party, that filing week — yeah, you only have a week to file candidacy — you’re watching the list and seeing how many other people file with your party. If you’re the only one who files with your political party, then it’s all done. No need for a primary election or any other steps for you. But if there is more than one candidate who files under the same political party, then we’ve met the first criteria and you may or may not have a primary election.  

The second part of determining if you need to participate in a primary election is based on a few other factors. In Utah, each political party has a convention. A convention is like a pre-primary election. At this convention, political party delegates (you know, those people the members of that party in your neighborhood selected to represent them) vote on which candidate they like best. In some cases delegates settle things and a clear winner emerges. That’s what happened in the position I’m running for. There were 3 Republicans who filed to run for Senate District 7. At the convention, however, one candidate clearly won to represent the Republicans on the ballot at the general election in November. There is no need for a primary election. All done.

But let’s say there isn’t a clear winner at the convention. Then the political party holds a primary election to determine who wins to represent that party. Let me emphasize, primary elections ONLY select who will move on to the general election. This is not the person who will necessarily win the position. It’s confusing in Utah because usually the person who wins the Republican primary election also tends to win the general election, but I’ll get to that in a minute. 

There’s another way that candidates can qualify for a primary election and that is through the signature gathering process. This bypasses the convention and delegate votes and demonstrates that the candidate has enough support among registered party members that there should be a primary election. 

Confused? Let’s use the race for Governor to help us break this down a bit. First of all, the current governor in Utah is not running for re-election. We call this an open seat, when the incumbent, the person who currently holds the office, is not running again.

With an open seat like this, you’ll often see a lot more people step forward and declare candidacy. Some people step forward from the same party, some people don’t. In this case 15 people paid the fee and declared themselves a candidate for governor. But not all 15 people get to move on to the next round. Not all 15 get to be on the ballot in November. And not all 15 will go through a primary election.

So, who are these 15 people? Well, eight of them are from the Republican party, four of them are from the Democratic party, one is from the Independent American party, one is from the Libertarian party, and one is an unaffiliated candidate listed as a write-in. 

Okay. The rules say each political party can have only one candidate on the ballot in November. Each party then holds a convention to determine who will get to represent their party on the ballot in the general election in November. The Libertarian and Independent American party conventions were likely fairly straightforward with only one candidate stepping forward with each party. The unaffiliated write-in is not with any political party, so they follow different rules. 

Okay, so for the Utah Democratic party, with four candidates who have declared, the convention is the first step. During the Utah Democratic convention this year, delegates voted and chose a clear winner to represent their party on the ballot during the general election in November. Also, none of the other candidates gathered signatures in order to qualify for a separate primary election. With a clear winner, and no other candidates qualifying for a primary election, the Democratic party does not need to hold a primary election for this office. It also just so happens that all of the other elected offices have a clear winner, so Utah does not need to conduct a state level primary election for the Democratic party. If there had been a few races without a clear winner within their own party, or if there had been candidates who had gathered signatures to qualify for a primary election, then the state would have to conduct a primary election for the Democratic party as well. 

Now let’s look at the Utah Republican party and their candidates for governor. There were eight total candidates who declared candidacy with the Republican party. Three of those candidates gathered signatures before the convention. During the convention, two candidates gained enough votes from delegates to qualify for a primary election. Notice that one candidate qualified twice, through the convention and through gathering signatures. The other four candidates did not qualify for the primary election and did not move on.

So, in this case, the Utah Republican party needs to have a primary election because there is not a clear candidate to represent them on the ballot in the general election in November. This isn’t the only race either. Turns out there are several other races throughout the state with the same situation. Some candidates qualified through the convention. Some candidates qualified through gathering signatures. Either way, if you vote in the Republican Primary election, again, just know that for every elected office where there is more than one name, each name represents people from the same political party who are competing for the same political office. The only reason why there are names on the ballot is because there is not yet a clear winner and the party needs to conduct a primary election to determine whose name gets to appear on the ballot to represent them in the general election in November.

Okay, now that we hopefully understand when — and if — a political party needs to hold a primary election let’s talk about primary elections here in Utah. 

In Utah, the Republican party is the main political party. 1977 was the last time we elected a Democratic Governor. Across the state Republican candidates consistently win roughly 70% of the vote.  In our legislature our state senate is made up of 29 senators. Of those senators 23 are Republican and 6 are Democrats. That’s 80% Republican, 20% from Democratic party. I don’t think Republican senators have to worry too much about what the Democrats think. In the House it’s the same. Out of the 75 House representatives, 59 or 80% are Republicans and 16 or 20% are from the Democratic party.

What do these numbers tell you? The Republicans win, Democrats lose. As harsh as that sounds, that’s the way things are currently in Utah. 

But there’s another problem. While all of the other political parties in the state have open primaries, meaning anyone can vote in their primary elections, the Republican primary is closed. That means only registered Republicans can vote. This does make sense from a logical standpoint — I mean, only those who are members of the party should be allowed to participate in their primary elections, right? 

Except…. Because the Republican party has such a super majority in most of the state, the Republican primary election basically becomes THE election. So, the Republican Primary that’s taking place right now until June 30th is determining who our governor will be, who the Attorney General will be, who your House Representative is and your State Senator, your Congressman… you name it. So unless you’re a registered Republican, you don’t really get to determine who wins in November. 

Wait, what? Let’s think about it for a second. Republicans win almost all of the races during the general election in November. No other party really has a chance of winning. Now, the Republican primary election determines which Republican candidate, only one,  gets to move on to the November election. When the rest of the voters who are not registered Republican get their ballot in November and they’re looking at who they can vote for in November, they will have one Republican, one Democrat, one Libertarian, one Independent American and one write-in candidate.  And who always wins? The one Republican — the one who was selected during the Republican Primary election.

That’s even worse for some of these smaller races like mine. The Senate seat was determined by only a handful of people voting in the convention. There were three other candidates and you don’t even get to look at them. It’s already been decided.

People in our state have figured out that the only way to get voted into office is to play the Republican party game. People who do not even align with the Republican party have switched over to try and find a way to win. Congressman John Curtis who represents the 3rd Congressional district was originally a Democrat but made the switch because, honestly, what other choice did he have? 

We have been trained to think that the only way to win in Utah is to be Republican because of the closed primary. A very large number of people stay registered Republican but do not personally align with the party. This year it’s been particularly bad with lots of people saying that you should change your party affiliation temporarily so that you can vote in the “real” but closed election.

Um… Anyone else see a problem here? 

Here’s another problem. We all pay for the Republican party’s closed primary election, even though we don’t get to vote in them. That’s right. If you’re not registered Republican you don’t get to vote, but you still have to pay for it. Our public officers do all the behind the scenes work of facilitating the Primary elections, printing ballots, mailing out ballots, collecting and processing ballots, paying poll workers, and publishing results — all paid for by taxpayer dollars. That’s not including the costs incurred to host debates and any other additional activities related to primary elections. 

This fact about the Republican Primary elections in Utah is the thing that flipped the switch for me. I believe that in a Democracy we should have choices. I believe each voter should have a say who represents them. I also believe we shouldn’t be stuck picking between Republicans or Democrats. In certain areas of the state, there is really only one choice — which isn’t much of a choice. Politicians who have figured out how to work the system only have to worry about the system and not the voter. 

Braving Politics Together invites you to join us in changing things for the better. So much of what happens in politics is intimidating and complicated, designed to keep the majority of us unaware of what’s going on. It doesn’t have to be that way.  Help us share our message so that more of us are aware of how things work and why. Together we can decide a better way. 

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3 thoughts on “Episode 4 – Utah Primary Elections

  1. Golly ! I didn’t know I was paying for Primaries that I couldn’t vote in !!

    I really learned alot from the clear step-by-step explanation that was written. Thank you !

    Yeah, how do we change this ??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “How do we change this??” — Great question! Likely we won’t be able to ask political parties to run their own primary elections. I would say the first step will be to elect representatives who do not have a personal interest in keeping the primary elections closed. Current legislators have no reason to change the status quo.

      I wonder what other ideas are out there to help fix this problem…?


    2. This is something I’m interested in changing too! Let’s hope we can do something about it as more of us become aware of the problem.


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