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Richard Davis: Still not too late to reform nomination process

Published: Wednesday, June 26 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

This May 18, 2013, file photo, shows people looking on during the Utah Republican Party's annual organizing convention, in Sandy, Utah. Utah Republicans pushing for reforms in their state caucus and convention system say they're moving forward with a plan to put an initiative before voters next year. Prominent Republicans in the group "Count My Vote" are planning an initiative allowing candidates to make a primary ballot with signatures instead of convention nominations.

Rick Bowmer, AP

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The two major political parties have spoken: The caucus-convention system will be preserved. The Republican Party State Central Committee met last Saturday and reaffirmed its support for the caucus-convention system, even if they must sponsor a ballot initiative to defend it. Similarly, Utah Democrats met in convention last Saturday and voted to keep the caucus-convention system instead of moving to a direct primary.

Actually, this is a false dichotomy. It is possible to have both a caucus-convention system and the direct primary. The solution is a caucus-convention system with more opportunity for a direct primary to be held following that convention.

How can both happen simultaneously? Part of the solution is resetting the party's nomination thresholds. Right now, both parties have set their thresholds too high. Over time, the threshold for winning the nomination outright has moved from 80 percent to 70 percent to 60 percent. That last figure, the one currently in use, means primaries are relatively rare events. Last year, out of 18 statewide and federal candidates among the two major parties in the general election, only four had faced primaries earlier in the year. All the other nominees were chosen at party conventions.

The Democrats and Republicans have done that on purpose: Primary elections are viewed by many as costly and potentially divisive. Plus, state delegates see themselves as more informed than the average rank-and-file partisan. All of those points are true.

But the benefits of primaries (at least held more frequently) outweighs them. One, the public would become more involved. It is true that primary elections bring a lower turnout than general elections. However, the Utah electorate has been turned off in recent years. Utah's voter turnout is now among the lowest in the nation. Forty years ago it was the highest. Primary contests would invigorate voter interest.

Two, extremist candidates would be disadvantaged. General election voters tend to be more moderate than primary voters, but primary voters are more moderate than convention delegates. Moderate candidates who can cross party lines and build bridges with various and diverse groups would be advantaged in primary elections.

Third, the publicity could be good for the party, particularly if the primary race remains issue-oriented rather than personal. In fact, Utah Democrats especially might benefit from such publicity. Currently, Republicans more often wage primaries while the Democratic candidate gets little notice. Democratic primaries would give Democratic candidates public attention as well. That could help build a two-party system.

To increase the odds of a primary election, one possibility is to set the nomination threshold at 10 percent of the state convention vote. That means the top two vote getters automatically go to a primary, as long as they achieve at least 10 percent of the vote. The 10 percent threshold would eliminate a primary between a popular candidate and one with almost no support within the party. With that kind of threshold, primaries would be held more frequently and voters would play a larger role in the nomination process.

Simultaneously, a candidate should be allowed on the primary ballot if he or she collects the signatures of 2 percent of the registered partisans in his or her district. This is what Count My Vote, the new organization of moderate Republicans wants as a voter initiative for the 2014 ballot. Their plan doesn't remove the caucus-convention system. Most candidates likely will compete through the traditional caucus-convention system. However, it does check the convention by offering a candidate an alternative to the primary ballot. As a result, a party that seeks to remain relevant will want to nominate a moderate candidate — Republican or Democrat — who can win a primary. That kind of candidate probably will have a better chance of winning a general election as well.

It isn't too late for the parties to act to forestall a ballot initiative. If the major parties will enact serious reform of the nomination process at their 2014 conventions, they may be able to convince voters that they are willing to reform themselves and not wait for state government to do it for them. After that, the decision may be out of their hands.

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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