Utah Group Seeks to Empower Voters to Reform Manipulative and Divisive Primary Elections
With each new chaotic moment in US politics, more Americans demand better – better elections and a better political environment. In single-party strongholds, like Utah, movements have emerged to break through the hyper-partisan and divisive status quo.
People4Utah is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit established to take on one of the biggest reasons why partisan extremism has gotten so bad that it is not only harming the political process, but the electoral process as well: closed primaries.
“Our mission is to help people learn how to have their voice heard and their vote count,” said Tami Fillmore, executive director of People4Utah. She added that there are two levels to this mission.
There is the individual level, which means reaching out to individuals and finding out where voters are in terms of political activity. The group listens to what is working for voters, what isn’t working, and helps them find the next right step.
The goal here is to empower voters.
Then, there is the systemic level and addressing what Fillmore calls “a system that is quite exclusive, especially to those who desire to be more independently minded as voters.”
“We’re working to make system changes in Utah so that empowered individuals can go into a system that allows them to have their voice heard," she said.
Utah conducts closed and semi-closed primaries, depending on the party ballot. Only registered Republicans can vote on GOP primary ballots, while unaffiliated voters can request a Democratic ballot, but only registered Democrats automatically receive them.
Unaffiliated voters who do not request a Democratic ballot will receive a primary ballot with only nonpartisan races on it – which would deny them a say in most races. Put simply, unaffiliated voters’ options are limited to a single party if they want candidates on their ballot.
And, voters registered with any other party other than the Republican and Democratic Parties don’t have a say at all unless they change their party affiliation.
Article 1, Section 2 of the Utah Constitution states that “political power is inherent in the people,” and a free government is founded on “their authority for their equal protection and benefit:” Can an election system that treats voters differently be equally beneficial to all?
People4Utah says no.
“What a closed primary leads to is a tiny percentage of the people of Utah choosing the elected representatives,” Fillmore explained. “Then, those elected officials feel like they need to answer to those who have voted for them, and elected them to their position, which is not representative of Utahns as a whole.”
Recent elections reveal that over 80% of races in Utah are safe for the Republican Party, meaning the winners are effectively decided in the party’s primaries. These taxpayer-funded and administered elections are inaccessible for half the state’s registered voting population.
Further, because most elections are decided in the primaries, a small percentage of voters are deciding who will represent all voters. In 2022, for instance, the turnout in the GOP primaries was 17% of eligible voters.
On top of this, there are several races in the state that go uncontested because of how safe districts are for a single party. People4Utah asks: Why should all taxpayers pay for an expensive election process that they are not invited to and have no say in?
“Voters have lost trust in the system and are now more open to something like the ballot initiative process,” said Fillmore. She said her group’s polling has found that many Utahns want change and People4Utah wants to help empower them to achieve it.
The people behind the organization say they are not out to be rebels. Their mission is not to undermine “tried-and-true democratic processes.” They do, however, recognize the imbalances present in the current system.
Fillmore also emphasized that the group is not out to manipulate outcomes. Rather, they want to free the system of current manipulations that have restricted voters, and free Utah's voice to see where voters really stand on candidates and issues.
“Right now, we don’t really know what Utah’s voice really is because people are manipulated to register for one party or the other based on the closed system,” she remarked.
People4Utah exists to educate voters on the constitutional powers they have to correct the imbalances, because Article I, section 2 of the Utah Constitution also states that voters “have the right to alter or reform their government as the public welfare may require.”
To this end, the organization is committed to listening to voters’ concerns and ideas through its Listening Lab Program, inspiring voters through “Be Heard” workshops, bringing people together to make a more representative democracy, and empowering citizens to pursue change.
Fillmore described the Listening Labs as a “fun, exciting, and enriching option” that brings in 5-15 people at a time to talk in person or online through Zoom to listen and better understand voters’ concerns and how People4Utah can help people become more active politically.
In order to empower voters to be more active, Fillmore explained that they need to identify personal connections in people’s everyday lives to what is going on in state politics – because what has detached many voters is a lack of personal connection.
That, and extreme toxicity and divisiveness among public officials and candidates.
Many people have heard the saying, “all politics is local.” And for a long time, that defined how voters and candidates engaged with the political process. But lately even local campaigns have focused their messaging on what is going on with the national parties, which leaves voters' everyday concerns by the wayside.
This is another consequence of an exclusive electoral system, but Fillmore says local elections show how the political landscape would change if elections looked more like the electoral model of local races.
“One of our models is to reach out to municipal leaders and let them know how much we respect the kind of leadership and pragmatic problem solving they can do because of the way they are elected,” she explained.
“Our municipal elections are nonpartisan, so all constituents vote for their representatives, and their representatives answer and speak to all of their constituents.”
She added that People4Utah highlights this as a strength.
“Rather than getting mired in partisan grandstanding, these elected leaders who are elected by all constituents are free instead to focus on the problems that affect people’s everyday life and help solve them.”
People4Utah wants to apply a nonpartisan primary model to the state level, so that all voters and candidates, regardless of party affiliation, participate on a single primary ballot, and all voters have a chance to have their voices heard in the most critical stage of Utah elections.
Fillmore says that after extensive research on Utah elections and voters, People4Utah has determined that an acceptable foundational first step to reform is a top-two nonpartisan primary system similar to the systems in California and Washington.
She expects nonpartisan primary reform to first emerge as a bill in the state legislature, which offers a narrow window in Utah. Legislative sessions happen in January and February each year, but People4Utah anticipates a reform bill to be introduced in the 2024 session.
“It will be a great opportunity for discussion about it, for people to start learning about the idea and that the idea exists,” Fillmore said. “We will listen and learn through this process as well.”
Nonpartisan primary reform may not pass the legislature, but the introduction of a bill in 2024, and potentially again in 2025, will give People4Utah time to see how the concept continues to poll with voters. If the support is there, the group could be in a position to attempt a statewide ballot initiative.