Robert Bennett: Utah could learn from California

Published: Monday, June 3 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Utah Republican Central Committee rejected a proposal to increase the convention delegate vote threshold to win the party's nomination.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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As far as I know, we are the only nation that does not have a uniform system of political procedures. Aside from their creation of the Electoral College, the writers of the Constitution gave no guidance as to how elections should be managed, leaving the matter completely to the states. Amendments to the Constitution have created a single voting standard for individuals — women, former slaves, their descendents and 18 year olds can now vote in every state, where once they could only vote in a few — but political parties remain without constitutional direction. How they pick their nominees is a confusing mixture of state law and party rules, which means the process differs from state to state. Utah's process is unique and completely baffling to those who live in other states.

We began with a convention, which was the norm in the 1800s, on both the state and national level. However, in the early 1900s, demand arose for more citizen participation, and slowly, in state after state, a new election cycle was created, called a "primary." This was done to give all voters, rather than just a few delegates, a voice in choosing nominees.

Utah responded by designing a hybrid system with both a convention and a primary. The convention would select two candidates for each office for which two or more aspirants had filed. The primary would be held later, with a ballot that was perforated down the middle — Democratic contenders on one side, Republicans on the other. Voters marked the ballot of the party of their choice and then tore the ballot in half, along the perforation, putting the marked ballot in the ballot box and the unmarked one in the wastebasket.

This system was seen as a brilliant compromise between party activists who could influence the choice of nominees and voters who made the final decision, regardless of their party affiliation. Utahns liked it. However, polls show that now most Utahns don't like what it has become and the question of what to do with it has become a significant political issue. Strange as it may sound, I suggest we look at California for an answer.

Like Utah, California is now a one party dominant state. California officeholders, safely gerrymandered into partisan districts, have gone without serious challenge for years. California's experiment with term limits hasn't opened things up so they adopted an open primary system. There is just one primary ballot with all names on it, regardless of party, and the top two vote getters — again, regardless of party — go on to the general election ballot. All voters participate in determining who those two will be.

Two real life examples of the difference that has made:

Henry Waxman, who entered Congress in 1975, hasn't had a serious challenge in decades. Under the old system, where he always had a Republican opponent, he routinely won with 70 percent. In 2012, he had an Independent opponent, picked by the open primary system, and dropped to 54 percent.

Congressman Pete Stark, first elected in 1972, was not so fortunate. The open primary gave him a viable Democratic opponent and he was retired, at 47 percent. Both seats are now considered competitive, which can make a huge difference in attitude for the incumbent.

The open primary would not be new to Utahns; we already use it in mayoral elections. Republicans shouldn't fear it because most of the winners would still be Republicans, just as most of the winners in California are still Democrats. However, enabling more voters to participate in the process, and thus feel more connected to election results, would be a good thing.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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