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Richard Davis: Utah's parties should change nomination process

Published: Wednesday, April 3 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Should Utah abandon the caucus-convention system and go straight to a direct primary?

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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Utah Republican Party chairman Thomas Wright should be applauded for initiating the process of rethinking the way the party nominates candidates for general election. Even if it is in response to an initiative effort, it is still the most extensive review of the way the caucus-convention system works in Utah. Wright says the party is considering ways to include more Republicans in the party's nomination process.

However, the Republican Party Central Committee is opposed to opening the system to a primary process, which is the way nominations are settled in nearly all other states. A majority favored raising the threshold for a candidate to get the party's nod at the convention to two-thirds of the delegates, which would increase the likelihood of a primary contest. However, they opposed a possible change of automatically sending the top two candidates to a primary.

Yet that option is the best one. Both parties should reform their convention rules to allow the top two vote getters an automatic place on a primary ballot. That would give registered voters and not just party activists a say in who becomes the party's nominees. In addition, the Republicans should open primary voting to unaffiliated voters, as the Democrats do. Closed primaries disenfranchise many voters who actually support the party at the ballot box, but don't want to formally join the party rolls.

But it doesn't look like Republicans will make these changes. Democrats, however, could and should open up their processes to be, well, more democratic. The Democrats should do so at their upcoming state convention, even if the Republicans don't. The Democrats' change would show the voters that the party respects the voters enough to allow them a direct role in the process. It also would bring attention to the party through a public primary campaign. Critics will suggest that a primary campaign will be divisive and expensive. But that kind of logic should probably preempt a general election campaign since it too is divisive and expensive.

Why not just abandon the caucus-convention system and go straight to a direct primary? True, that is the method used by most other states. But there is some value in maintaining a modified caucus/convention system. Indeed, there is a role for a party organization in selection of nominees. Culling a wide array of possible candidates to two is helpful for the party rank and file.

For example, in 2012, there were six Republican gubernatorial candidates and 10 Republican U.S. Senate candidates. That is a lot of candidates for voters to go through. But the caucus/convention system's role should not be one that precludes the voters' role in deciding who they want on their ballot. The current caucus/convention system in Utah does just that.

The near monopoly on nomination decisions held by party delegates through the caucus/convention is particularly troublesome in a one-party state like Utah. Since the results of the Republican Party nomination process nearly mirror the general election outcome in the vast majority of Utah's partisan electoral races, the convention's nominee usually becomes the elected official, without a primary election and often without a viable general election opponent. Allowing between 100 (the size of the state legislative district delegate pool) and 3,500 (the state convention delegate size) to decide who governs 36,000 in a legislative district or 2.8 million statewide is ludicrous. Utahns should not stand for such a small group being able to determine who governs them, particularly when they can clearly do better themselves. For example, in 2010 Utah Republicans probably would have selected Bob Bennett in a GOP primary, and Utahns would have voted for Bennett in a general election. But thanks to the caucus/convention system, they never got the chance to do so.

The solution is a hybrid caucus/convention and primary system that preserves party activists' role but also gives rank-and-file voters a direct say in most decisions about who becomes their party's nominee. That move will give far more of the decision-making role in the nomination process back to those who are most affected by it — the voters.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU. Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu

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