Defenders of Utah's unique system of nominating major party political candidates say it works well, especially when a lot of party members show up at caucus meetings and make their wishes known. Such was the case in 2012 when both Republican and Democratic mass meetings reported turnout so large that in some cases space was barely sufficient to accommodate everyone.
But even with such a large turnout, the system is flawed. In either party, a candidate who can command the support of at least 60 percent of the delegates becomes the nominee without having to face voters in a primary. In the few other states that hold nominating conventions, the convention is not a way to avoid a primary; it is the way to qualify for a primary. A minimum threshold, usually between 15 and 30 percent, must be reached in convention to get on a primary ballot.
Utah's system can discourage participation and skew results in favor of well-organized but potentially unrepresentative interests. In recent years, we have seen popular incumbents eliminated from the ballot by a group of delegates who arguably were not representative of party voters as a whole.
A group led by a former Utah County Republican Party secretary has begun a petition drive to get a measure before voters that would change this system. The idea is to keep the current nominating process but to add a path for candidates to get on the ballot through a petition process. Anyone who could get signatures equaling 2 percent of the registered party members within the district of the office in question could force a primary.
We have not seen the wording of this petition, but the basic idea is a good one. It is one approach toward reform, and the petition process may be the only way to change a system that has seemed content with discouraging participation in recent years, a contentment that has accompanied a gradual decline in voter participation in Utah.
In a report published a little more than a year ago, the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, said a system that made it easier for candidates to compete and qualify for primary elections would have changed the look of many elections over the past decade. A more open system would likely broaden participation and make elected officials more representative of the wishes of a wide array of constituents.
The report also drew a connection between broad and inclusive party processes and voter turnout. "In general, states that eliminate barriers to voting and allow election-day registration and hold open primaries have higher voter turnout," it said. "States that have stricter laws have lower voter turnouts."
Unfortunately, Utah's previously commendable voter turnout has become embarrassingly low.
The petition drive may not make it to the ballot. Supporters must gather 103,000 signatures from registered voters in 26 of 29 counties. It shouldn't take such a grass-roots effort, however. The parties themselves, in an effort to be representative and relevant, should be pushing for reform.