- Associated Press - Thursday, March 24, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that he’d like to see Utah return to a presidential primary after far fewer people participated in the state’s Tuesday caucuses than in 2008, the last presidential election without a sitting president.

About 280,000 people participated in the Democratic and Republican caucuses on Tuesday. In 2008, about 430,000 people participated in a state-run presidential primary.

Democrats are calling on lawmakers to fund a primary and Herbert said at a news conference on KUED-TV Thursday that he prefers primaries.

Herbert said it’s good that more people turned out than normal to caucuses, where state and local delegates are picked, but it’s disappointing that far fewer people participated than in state-run primaries.

Utah lawmakers decide every four years whether to pay for a primary. They opted out this year after the Utah Republican Party to hold its own caucuses, getting voters to cast their presidential votes while attending meetings where party faithful gather to pick delegates for state and local elections held later in the year.

The majority-Republican Legislature didn’t want to foot a $3 million election bill just for Democrats, and left that party to run its own caucuses, too.

In a 2015 letter to legislative leaders, Mitt Romney said the move was a bad decision and would lead to tens of thousands of fewer voters participating.

While fewer people turned out this year, voters overwhelmed Utah Democratic caucuses, leading to hours-long lines and three-fourths of their locations running out of ballots. Volunteers had to run out and buy extra reams of paper to print 15,000 more ballots.

Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said he was pleased with higher-than-anticipated turnout but called on lawmakers to pay for a primary.

He said a caucus, where voters have to turn out at a specific location during a window of a few hours, ends up disenfranchising voters.

Corroon acknowledged the party could have printed more ballots, but said the party could only run 90 caucus sites with the $20,000 it had to spend from its budget.

He notes that the state of Utah spent $150,000 this year to send out mailers reminding voters that parties would hold caucuses instead of primaries - seven times the amount Democrats spent to run the caucus.

“Political parties are not in the business of running elections. We’re in the business of trying to win elections,” he said. “We still can’t match the power of the lieutenant governor’s office and 29 county clerks in running an election.”

Utah GOP chair James Evans said earlier this year that he believed the presidential caucuses would increase turnout.

He said Thursday that he still believes that but that it will take four more years, when he said voters would be more comfortable with absentee caucusing and online voting, which the party used for the first time on Tuesday.

“Once that’s fully implemented, you’re going to see a leapfrog effect,” he said.

Evans said the fact that callers flooded a technical support hotline for online voting shows there’s interest and the potential for higher turnout. He said the party has to improve the system if anyone was disenfranchised on Tuesday.

The open presidential race in 2008 was competitive on both sides of the aisle, as it was this year. Utah paid for a primary election held in February, with about 131,000 Democrats and about 296,000 Republicans participating.

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