Why Utah GOP’s Super Tuesday caucus results were slow and frustrating


Utah Republican 2024 primary turnout appears to be much lower than in years past, even when compared to another chaotic caucus night.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Caucus volunteer Stewart Grow speaks with a Republican caucusgoer during the presidential primary caucuses at Riverton High School in Riverton on Tuesday, March 5, 2024.

Running an election is a lot harder than it looks — just ask the Utah Republican Party. The state GOP has tried it twice in the last eight years, with both efforts resulting in upset voters and technological problems.

Utah Republicans opted out of the state-run Super Tuesday primary election this year in favor of a presidential preference poll at Tuesday’s biennial neighborhood caucus meetings. Voting system issues resulted in long lines and confusion. Attendees were encouraged to pre-register on the party’s website, but that system ran into difficulties, adding to the chaos. The party finally rolled out the first round of results at midnight, about four hours after the initially early returns from Democrats.

President Joe Biden easily won Utah’s Democratic primary with about 88% of the vote, while 57% of Republican caucusgoers voted for former President Donald Trump, according to early returns.

On Tuesday night, Republicans told The Salt Lake Tribune they were frustrated by the chaotic caucus process, which took up large parts of their evening. Several said they’d been bounced around between multiple caucus locations throughout the night.

“I want to thank all the candidates who participated, our dedicated organizers and volunteers, and especially the caucus-goers, even when dealing with long lines and some hiccups to the check-in process in some locations,” GOP chair Rob Axson said in a statement Wednesday morning.

A similar scenario occurred in 2016 when the Utah GOP opted for a party-run presidential caucus. Utah Democrats were forced to follow suit and hold a presidential vote at their caucus meetings when the Utah Legislature decided not to fund a primary election. Higher-than-expected turnout caused attendees to stand outside for hours in bad weather, and many locations ran out of ballots.

[Read also: Trump wins chaotic Utah presidential caucus overshadowed by voting system issues]

The 2016 Utah GOP presidential vote was problematic for another reason. The party attempted to include some online voting for Utah Republicans that then-party chair James Evans hoped would boost caucus turnout.

That experiment turned out to be a disaster. An estimated 40,000 people tried to take advantage of the online balloting, but about a quarter were rejected because their voter registration status could not be verified. Calls from thousands of voters who could not cast a ballot flooded into helplines during the vote. Counting those online votes was also problematic, and more than a month after the election, the Utah GOP had still not released the final tally.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Caucusgoers sign in ahead of the Utah Republican Party’s presidential primary caucus at Riverton High School in Riverton on Tuesday, March 5, 2024.

Utah Republicans turned to Smartmatic, the London-based election technology company, to run the online portion of the 2016 election. Smartmatic was later the center of several baseless conspiracy theories about Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss. Smartmatic has sued Fox News for $2.7 billion in damages for their role in spreading those unfounded claims.

Former GOP chairman Carson Jorgensen says Tuesday night’s events were unfortunate, and it’s understandable why the party would hold a presidential preference poll at the caucus meetings.

“I like the idea, but it’s out of the norm. People just don’t know what to expect,” Jorgensen said Tuesday night.

The quaintness of having to go to a neighborhood meeting on a Tuesday night to pick your party’s presidential nominee is amplified even more considering that Utah Democrats got their ballots in the mail three weeks ago and early results published on a state-run website shortly after 8 p.m.

“The party worked hard to make it work and advertise for it,” Jorgensen said of Republicans. “That being said, I know many in my town who had zero idea what was happening. Most of them were major Trump supporters.”

Utah Republicans pocketed $300,000 from the six Republican candidates who appeared on the Utah GOP ballot Tuesday night. Each campaign paid the party $50,000 for the privilege. The five Democrats on the primary election ballot paid the state a $500 fee when they filed to run.

As of Wednesday morning, the GOP had tallied just under 75,000 caucus ballots, about 22% of the 344,000 voters who cast a ballot in the 2020 GOP primary election, saw Trump receive 87% of the vote over a handful of other candidates. And Tuesday’s turnout is not even half of the 191,000 people who ultimately voted in the party’s 2016 presidential caucus, where Trump came in third place behind Sen. Ted Cruz and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

As of Wednesday morning, just over 61,000 Democratic primary ballots had been counted, about 27% of the 229,500 active, registered Democratic voters in Utah. So far, about 8% of the Beehive State’s 890,600 active Republican voters had ballots from the Super Tuesday caucus counted.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Caucusgoers count precinct ballots during Utah Republcian’s presidential primary poll at Riverton High School in Riverton on Tuesday, March 5, 2024.

Since the 2020 election, some in the Utah GOP have been pushing to eliminate the state’s universal vote-by-mail system. Most of that effort has been fueled by Trump’s false claims that massive fraud was responsible for his loss to Biden four years ago. Outside of that fringe group, there doesn’t appear to be much appetite to change the status quo.

In 2022, Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, proposed legislation to replace Utah’s vote-by-mail system with same-day, in-person voting that would be counted by hand. A legislative committee rejected that proposal. And this year, a bill requiring voters to opt-in to receiving their ballot through the mail died without a debate.

Two years ago, a proposed citizen initiative dubbed “Secure the Vote” sought to scrap vote-by-mail in favor of in-person voting on election day, with the results tallied by hand. At the time, election officials warned moving to that system could skyrocket costs. Organizers fell far short of collecting enough signatures to put the issue to voters.

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