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Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon is complaining that county clerks statewide are essentially running a taxpayer-funded drive to register new Republicans.
But election officials say he is misconstruing their efforts, which are aimed at helping voters receive whichever by-mail party ballot they choose in time for the June 28 primary.
The dispute comes, in part, because 20 of the state's 29 counties are conducting elections mostly by mail this year. So clerks wrote letters to the 41 percent of Utahns who are not affiliated with any party, asking whether they want a Democratic or Republican ballot.
Letters warn that if voters choose to receive a GOP ballot, they will then be registered as Republicans. That's because the GOP allows only registered Republicans to vote in its closed primary, but Democrats allow anyone of any party to vote in its open primary.
Corroon cried foul in a letter Thursday to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who oversees state election law.
"These taxpayer-funded efforts by our county clerks amount to a voter registration drive for the Utah GOP," Corroon wrote.
"These letters seem to be encouraging unaffiliated voters to vote in Republican primaries, rather than the primary election in which they are already eligible to vote," namely the Democratic one, Corroon wrote. "Clerks should not be in the business of recruiting voters to change their party affiliation to the Utah Republican Party, and certainly not at taxpayer expense."
Corroon added, "You should direct the county clerks to send all registered voters a Democratic ballot" because all voters are eligible to participate in it.
Mark Thomas, state elections director and a Cox subordinate, said he sees little difference in what clerks are doing with the letters than when voters show up at a physical polling place and are asked which ballot they would like, and unaffiliated voters are told there that they must register as Republicans to vote in the GOP primary.
"It has worked well from what we have seen," he said of the process described in the letters, adding that the lieutenant governor's office has left it up to counties to decide how to handle the matter.
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen who is a Democrat disagrees with Corroon's assertions. She said his demands would require sending multiple ballots to voters.
"That would be burdensome, costly and terribly confusing to people," she said, adding it would likely lead to more spoiled ballots and many more questions than the current system.
"I'm here to facilitate the election and conduct it as efficiently as possible, and in an unbiased, nonpartisan manner," Swensen said. "He [Corroon] is looking at it from another perspective."
Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans said Corroon "is just grasping at something to complain about," and said clerks "are just trying to assist voters in enough time so they can participate in whichever primary they choose."
Swensen said her county plans to mail ballots on June 6.
Democrats have a statewide primary contest in the U.S. Senate race between Jonathan Swinton and Misty K. Snow. Republicans have a statewide primary between Gov. Gary Herbert and Jonathan Johnson.
Republicans also have a primary in the 3rd Congressional District between Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Chia-Chi Teng. The GOP also has primaries in 11 legislative races. Counties have a variety of local-level primaries.