Forty-four states currently use a direct primary election. Five of the remaining six use a convention but also include an alternative way to the primary ballot. Utah can no longer remain the lone outlier and should instead adopt a system that allows any candidate who can organize a petition to be placed on the primary ballot by securing the signatures of 2 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the last election for that office.
Republican candidates running for governor, for example, would be able to access the primary ballot by the current system of securing 40 percent of the delegate vote at convention, but they also could get the signatures of 13,000 registered members of their party. Those candidates will then be judged by all voters rather than the few who attend a nominating convention. In our current system, approximately 3,500 Republican delegates attend the state political convention. Because of the strong Republican majority in Utah, our governor could effectively be elected by fewer people than those who elect student body presidents at Utah's larger high schools.
A group of people in both political parties will be intensely unhappy with this proposal. They understand the system and have learned to use it as a way to exercise extensive influence over the outcome of elections. In fact, they will argue the system is best controlled by people like them who care enough to show up at caucus meetings.
But Utah's changing demographics and busy lifestyles have created a new reality. Our system of government should enable participation, not restrict, much less cap, it. It is a lesson of history that when political participation drops, the process begins to polarize and produces misguided public policies. The Count My Vote Coalition believes the state Legislature should pass legislation modernizing our system and adding an alternative path to the primary ballot as a first important step. If they act this year, a new and improved system could be in place for the 2014 election.
If the Legislature is unwilling to act, there is one more alternative: a citizens' initiative. It is not a desirable way to make law — unless there is no other option. However, if elected officials refuse to act, it is one tool that remains.
Michael O. Leavitt is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. He served in the cabinet of President George W. Bush and as governor of Utah. He is the founder and chairman of Leavitt Partners. Website: www.leavittpartners.com