How Elections Work In Utah
What is the Caucus/Convention Method and how does it work?
WHAT TYPES OF ELECTIONS DO WE HAVE IN UTAH?
VOTER PARTICIPATION RATES
WHAT IS “COUNT MY VOTE”?

What is the Caucus/Convention Method and how does it work?

Utah uses the caucus/convention method to select candidates for primary and general elections. This means that a small number of delegates, and not the voters, decide on the candidates. Here’s how it works:

The Caucus/Convention Method:

  1. Precinct Caucus – Ordinary voters meet in March of even-numbered election years in neighborhood meetings called precinct caucuses for their political parties to select the state and county delegates who will represent the precinct for a term of 2 years. A person must be a registered voter within the precinct to participate in caucus voting. Republican caucuses are closed and allow participation of only registered Republican voters, whereas Democratic caucuses are open and allow any registered voter, regardless of party affiliation.
  2. Annual Party Conventions – County and state delegates meet once a year at the annual party county and state conventions to:
    • In even-numbered years: Elect primary candidates for federal offices (Congress and Senate), state offices (like governor, attorney general, legislative candidates in districts that include more than one county, etc) and county offices (like commissioners, county mayors, county assessor, etc)
    • In odd-numbered years: Conduct party business, such as electing party officials and leaders and deciding on party platform.
  3. Party Primaries – Next, each political party holds primary elections to narrow down the field of candidates in their party to a single candidate per open elected seat, who will face off against candidates from other political parties in the general election. However, if a candidate receives 60% or more of the vote in a party convention, they may skip the primary election and become the automatic party candidate for the general election. The only candidates not selected by delegates are independent candidates and petition candidates allowed under the 2014 SB 54 Count My Vote compromise legislation. Petition candidates may circumvent the convention system by gathering a sufficient number of qualified signatures to gain a place on the party primary ballot alongside any other petition candidates and convention-nominated candidates from their party. Only one party candidate will make it to the general election ballot.
    • Republican primaries are closed (meaning they are only open to registered voters affiliated with the Republican party at least 30 days before the primary or unaffiliated voters who register as Republican at the polls).
    • Democratic primaries are open, meaning they are open to registered voters affiliated with the Democratic party or registered unaffiliated voters. Unaffiliated voters must request a primary ballot from their county clerk’s office.
  4. General Elections – Winners of primary elections move on to general elections, in which all registered voters may vote on any candidate of their choice, and the winner moves on to become the elected official.

WHAT TYPES OF ELECTIONS DO WE HAVE IN UTAH?

Who is up for election?

Seats up for election are municipal offices, such as city mayors and city council, plus officials in special service districts like water, sewer and parks & rec, as well as local district school board members. These elections are held in odd years and are nonpartisan because the positions, though elected, are nonpartisan positions. (NOTE: in 2016 the State Legislature voted on SB78, a law to make school board positions partisan beginning in 2020, though most local district school boards remain nonpartisan.) The terms of these positions are staggered so, for instance, not all city council members are up for re-election at the same time.

Primary and general elections

Primary elections are sometimes held for these positions when more than double the number of candidates file for an available seat. If there are double or fewer candidates, then there will be no primary election, and all candidates will be named on the general election ballot. When only one candidate files, that candidate will automatically become the winner of the general election.

Who can vote?

All registered voters may vote in municipal and special district elections within their own municipalities. Voters who reside outside of municipality boundaries may not vote in municipal elections.

Who is up for election?

County, state and federal elections are held to fill seats of officers in county, state and federal government. This includes county mayors and commissioners, assessors, council members, etc, at the county level, state attorney general, state assessor, governor, and seats in the Utah House and Senate, etc, at the state level and seats in the U.S. Senate and House at the federal level.

Primary and general elections

Primaries are held in county, state and federal elections by party, and only when there are more than one party candidate running for any open seat on the ballot. Candidates for these positions are chosen by county and state delegates. If any candidate gets 60% or more of the delegate vote, then there will be no primary election for that seat, and the candidate gets placed directly on the general election ballot. Exceptions to this are petition candidates, who must be placed on the primary ballot if they collect enough qualifying signatures along with any candidates selected by the delegates. If no candidate receives 60% or more of the delegate vote, then the top two candidates will be placed on a primary ballot. The winner of the primary election will then move on to the general election. Qualifying unaffiliated candidates and write-in candidates are automatically placed on the general election ballot.

Who can vote?

County, state and federal elections are always partisan and are dictated by party rules. Primary elections are held by each party according to different rules. Republican primaries are CLOSED, which means that only registered Republicans (registered voters who affiliate as Republicans at least 30 days in advance of the primary election or unaffiliated voters who register as Republican at the polls) may vote. NOTE: Unaffiliated voters who receive mail-in ballots for these elections must take them to the polls and exchange them for in-person ballots on the day of the election, then affiliate as a Republican, in order for their vote to count. Democratic primaries are OPEN, meaning any registered voter either affiliated as a Democrat or unaffiliated may vote in them. Democratic presidential elections are open to all registered voters. Utah voters may only vote in one party’s primary, not both. All registered voters may vote in the general election for any candidate of their choosing.

Who is up for election?

U.S. presidential elections are held in even years every four years simultaneously with that year’s county, state and federal election.

Caucuses, primaries and general elections

States may choose to hold either caucuses or primaries to vote on presidential and vice presidential contenders.

In 2016, Utah chose to hold caucuses, which are paid for by the parties and not the state and can be cheaper in general than primaries. Caucuses, like partisan primaries, are held by each individual party per party rules. Caucuses result in a commitment by a specific number of the state’s national party delegates (decided by the vote tally) to vote for specific candidates at the party’s national convention later in the year. The winners of the party convention then advance to the general election ballot.

In 2020, Utah chose to hold a Democratic presidential primary election. Because Democratic primaries are open, any registered voter was permitted to cast a ballot, regardless of party affiliation. No Republican presidential primary election was held, as Utah recognized only one Republican presidential candidate. As with presidential caucuses, presidential primaries result in a commitment by a specific number of the state’s national party delegates (decided by the vote tally) to vote for specific candidates at the party’s national convention later in the year. The winners of the party convention then advance to the general election ballot.

How do presidential caucuses work?

Caucuses are public meetings in which candidates for presidential and vice presidential positions are chosen. These meetings can be held in schools, government buildings, churches, etc. Any state that uses the caucus system may host as many caucus meetings as they choose, and allows any citizen of that state to attend. Those who attend caucuses discuss the potential candidates for several hours, after which an in person voting process begins. All of the votes are tallied and the few top candidate choices from that state are announced later that night. Soon after this process, lesser known candidates usually drop out of the campaign while more popular candidates may continue further in the election process.

The caucus meeting process varies depending on the party. The Republican Party caucuses use a very basic system. Once attendees have shown up, candidates are discussed for a few hours before each attendee submits a private voting ballot, similar to the general election. The Democratic Party uses a system that is a bit more complex. Attendees separate into groups based on what candidate they would like to support. At that point, each group tries to persuade members of the other groups to join their side. Any candidate group that has less than 15% support by the end of the meeting is eliminated and members supporting that candidate are asked to choose a different candidate group to join. The group that ends the meeting with the most members determines the winning candidate.

Who can vote?

With both caucus and primaries in Utah, Republican party elections are CLOSED. Generally, Democratic elections are OPEN. Any registered voter can attend caucuses. Registered voters who would like to actively participate in the voting process at caucuses must attend the caucus within their own precinct. Only affiliated Republicans may vote in Republican caucuses. Any registered voter may vote in Democratic caucuses. Check third parties for caucus rules.

United Utah Party Caucus page
Green Party
Libertarian Party
Constitution Party

At times special elections may be held to fill any seat that is unexpectedly vacated – either by early retirement/resignation, illness or death. Special elections are conducted by different processes depending on what type of seat has been vacated and what state rules are in place for replacing departed officials. Timing of these special elections is also dependent on the timing of the departure and state rules.

VOTER PARTICIPATION RATES

In Utah our voter participation rates have been quite low in recent history. Even with record turnouts in some counties in 2016 presidential election and the highest percentage of registered voters (80%) participating in 4 decades, our turnout was still only 39th in the nation, with only 42% of our voting age population participating.

According to a 2017 study by the Utah Foundation, reasons for low voter participation in Utah include policies that systematically remove the efficacy of individual votes and make the result of the election a foregone conclusion that renders voters feeling their vote is meaningless. The Utah Foundation report attributes low voter participation rates to:

  • The caucus/convention method – Utah is one of the only states where citizens run as delegates, who go on to vote for candidates. This may cause political polarization, as delegates tend to align to a specific party than individual voters.
  • Gerrymandering – Parties can draw districts to maximize gains and minimize losses, which makes races less competitive.
  • Single candidate elections – The rate of uncompetitive races remains high at more than 60%. This creates the perception that votes don’t matter and lowers civic duty.

During the 2018 Midterm elections, however, active voter turnout surged to 75.55% (about 50% of eligible voters), moving Utah to 21st for voter turnout. This is the highest turnout Utah has had in a non-presidential election since 1962. This anomaly has been attributed by experts to high profile propositions on the ballot. In 2020, voter turnout jumped again for the presidential election, raising Utah’s ranking to 27th in the nation for eligible voter turnout – a ranking not achieved since 2002.

WHAT IS “COUNT MY VOTE”?

In 2014 a bipartisan group launched the Count My Vote ballot initiative to eliminate the caucus/convention system altogether, citing complaints about how the current system greatly limits those who can participate in delegate selection due to difficulties people have attending caucuses — particularly those who are unable to find transportation or babysitters or get off work in order to attend. Critics say the caucus/convention system significantly hampers the voice voters can have in choosing candidates and therefore the elected officials representing them and makes elected officials accountable to the delegates rather than to the voters. Utahns are much more likely to vote via ballot in primary elections due to their increased convenience and accessibility and would have a greater voice in elections by choosing candidates in primary elections versus the caucus/convention method. The result of the “Count My Vote” initiative in 2014 was a compromise that passed in SB 54.

What is S.B. 54 (Count My Vote compromise bill) and what does it do?

The S.B. 54 is a bill that was proposed by the Utah legislature in response to the “Count My Vote” ballot initiative and passed in 2014. The legislation allows candidates to collect signatures as an alternative path to the primary ballot in addition to the traditional caucus/convention path.

What is the 2018 County My Vote ballot initiative?

After the SB 54 compromise passed in 2014, the Utah GOP launched a series of legal attacks on the compromise law, in effect creating severe debt and infighting within the party. In addition, every year since 2014 far right state legislators have attempted to repeal the law through legislative proposals, constantly threatening the compromise. The 2018 Count My Vote initiative was launched once again to make permanent the petition route within the caucus/convention system, giving Utahns a greater voice in the political process. Keep My Voice, a small opposition movement, successfully defeated the CMV ballot measure by convincing a small number of voters in key districts to remove their signatures from the initiative.

What is the 2018 Better Boundaries ballot initiative?

The Better Boundaries ballot initiative sought to end partisan gerrymandering in Utah by redrawing district lines through an independent redistricting commission. The bipartisan measure (Prop 4) was passed during the 2018 Midterm election to ensure parties and politicians will not gain an unfair advantage by picking and choosing voters to include in their district. Previously, the State Legislature handled the redistricting process with the majority party holding the power to determine the districts within a narrow scope of rules that can at times unfairly benefit one party or another. Prop 4 created a nonpartisan redistricting commission through the “Utah Independent Redistricting Commission and Standards Act”. Members of the commission will be appointed by the governor and state legislature, and must vote on proposed redistricting maps, which must ultimately be approved by the legislature. Read more about Better Boundaries here.

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