Being out of touch with the rest of the nation isn't necessarily a bad thing. Good public policy should be based on more than just following trends. But the way Utah's major political parties nominate candidates isn't only unique, it discourages people from participating in the political process and may be contributing to disturbingly low voter turnout.
That isn't the definitive conclusion of a new report by the Utah Foundation, which concerns itself more with simply presenting facts than with recommendations. But it's difficult not to read the report without getting the point.
If Utah's parties had a system that made it easier for candidates to compete and qualify for primary elections, several races over the past decade would have looked differently. In one case, a popular incumbent governor, Olene Walker, would have been on the ballot. In another, voters could have had a say about another incumbent, Sen. Robert Bennett, who was forced from office by convention delegates. This, the report says, might not have changed the ultimate outcome, "but a broader pool of citizens (rather than solely the party delegates) would have been able to participate in the process."
The report continues by saying "it would be interesting" to see whether this had led to better voter turnout. Research indicates a more open political system does encourage better turnout. It also has the effect of broadening power and influence over the decisions elected officials make once in office.
We have expressed deep concerns about Utah's nominating process in the past. Republicans and Democrats select convention delegates in neighborhood meetings that are too vulnerable to manipulation and too loosely controlled. Those delegates meet in county and state conventions to whittle down candidates for state and congressional offices. If a candidate receives 60 percent or more of delegate votes, he or she is nominated without having to face a primary.
In the few other states that hold such conventions, the process is exactly opposite. Any candidate reaching a minimum threshold of delegate support — generally between 15 percent and 30 percent — can qualify for a primary ballot. Those who can't meet that minimum may still qualify through a petition process.
This is more than just a question of arcane procedures. A Dan Jones & Associates poll for the Deseret News/KSL in conjunction with the Hinckley Institute last year dramatically illustrated how the current system empowers extremists in both parties. It found that women make up 55 percent of Republican voters in the state, but only 25 percent of convention delegates. On the Democrats' side, women were 60 percent of voters and only 43 percent of delegates. In addition, 81 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats had lived in the state more than 20 years. Young people and newcomers were not well-represented.
It's easy to argue that Utah's system is open to all comers; therefore, people who are under-represented have only themselves to blame. This ignores the power of rules and the influence of "group think" in small caucus gatherings. The current system is too easily manipulated to exclude people. The narrower the process, the easier exclusion becomes.
If change comes, it could come through the parties themselves. While we recognize that isn't likely to happen, Utah's political leaders ought to be alarmed by the state's dismal voter turnout, which in 50 years has fallen from one of the nation's highest to one of its lowest. Barely half the voting-age population showed up for the last presidential election. That makes Utah out of touch in more ways than one.