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In our opinion: Nominating Process

Published: Tuesday, April 23 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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While the Republican Party on a national level is working to find ways to become more inclusive and broaden its appeal, the GOP in Utah has chosen to retain a nominating system that keeps the power over political candidacies in the hands of a relatively few people.

It is unfortunate the party itself could not see the enlightened self-interest of reform. Keeping the status quo may tip the hand of a reform organization that includes several Republican stalwarts, who wish to see a less restrictive path to candidate nominations. The organization, called Count My Vote, is considering an initiative petition drive to force significant changes to the party nominating processes.

Currently, a Republican candidate can avoid a primary fight and land on the ballot if he or she gains at least 60 percent of the vote of party convention delegates who are selected in neighborhood caucuses. Critics see the process as restrictive, in that the body of caucus-goers comprises a very small percentage of registered voters.

Count My Vote has formally asked both parties to consider modest ways to widen the pool of candidates. In the case of the GOP, one proposed initiative would increase the threshold for direct nomination — and avoid a primary election — from 60 to 70 percent of the convention vote. Another potential reform would allow candidates to bypass a delegate vote and force a primary vote by obtaining petition signatures from at least 2 percent of prospective voters.

The GOP's leadership decided at its recent Central Committee meetings to reject potential reforms in favor of the status quo, with some party leaders openly bemoaning the efforts of Count My Vote to meddle in party affairs — despite the fact that Count My Vote's bipartisan membership includes former Gov. Michael O. Leavitt and former GOP Party Chairman Dave Hansen, as well as other prominent Republicans. They have joined the organization because they want to open up the process to greater citizen participation.

What they want also happens to be in the best long-term interests of the greater GOP, whether the party's current leadership realizes it or not.

National party leaders are worried Republican appeal is weak among key demographic groups, and they are concerned that the party's loss in the 2012 presidential race is a harbinger of more struggles to come. But in Utah, the GOP base, for now, comprises a much larger share of the voting population, and party leaders and activists here want to keep their control over the nominating process.

That process, initiated through a caucus system, works in such a way that well-organized factions may use it to ensure a kind of ideological purity among candidates — people of like mind swarm the neighborhood meetings and select those of similar bent to represent them at the convention. Some political scientists believe that has resulted in declining voter turnout in Utah — which was once among the highest in the nation and now is among the lowest.

The caucus system is an intrinsically democratic, grass-roots process that once met the needs of the state. But in contemporary society, it tends to restrict participation to the most activist among party members. Utah is the only state that does not allow for either a direct primary or for some alternative method for a candidate to get on a primary ballot aside from their performance in a statewide convention.

The GOP's current leaders have acted to keep Utah as the lone state that so narrows the path to a candidacy. They seem to believe it is in the party's best interest to allow factions to retain tight control over the nominating process. It is a short-sighted view, and those who oppose it understand there is more long-term opportunity in an approach that favors more openness and inclusion.

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