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In our opinion: Democratic Party wants to retain its archaic caucus system

Published: Tuesday, July 2 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

On the agenda for the state Republican Party Organizing Convention are changes to how delegates gather and select candidates through what's known as the caucus and convention system for choosing nominees.

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The Democratic Party in Utah is working hard to expand its appeal, waging a campaign to recruit independent-minded voters by arguing the party is more inclusive than its Republican counterpart. But the decision at the Democratic State Convention to retain the party's archaic caucus system is a serious blow to the credibility of its "inclusiveness" claims.

The caucus-convention system is a fundamental deterrent to inclusion, delivering disproportionate influence to the members of the exclusive club of caucus-goers and the convention delegates they select as their proxies.

Both parties in Utah voted this year to retain caucus systems that are unique in the United States, and the recipient of valid criticism on grounds they relegate voters to a backseat position in the journey to name prospective office-holders. Most states have primary elections, while primaries in Utah are held only if candidates can't muster enough delegate votes at their respective conventions.

And the conventions are stacked deep by activist partisans who as a collective group do not represent the demographic realties of the voting populace. More than 40 percent of convention delegates are over 55. More than three-quarters of Democratic delegates have lived in Utah more than 20 years. Women are significantly underrepresented.

It is not surprising the insiders at the conventions would vote to retain their lopsided lock on power. Not surprising, but unfortunate. The caucus system is widely blamed for the erosion of voter turnout in Utah. The system tends to grant louder voice to the ideologically rigid edges of the respective parties, to the exclusion of more moderate candidates and voters.

Utah Democrats have chided Republicans for allowing the party's more extreme elements to dictate its agenda. Now, Democrats are officially in the same boat, whether they will admit it or not. Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis has railed against the "good ol' boys" network that he says rules the Utah GOP. To suggest such a network doesn't hold sway in the Democratic ranks is disingenuous, if not dishonest, given the outcome of the convention vote on caucus reform.

Democrats favoring retention of the caucus system say it's a less expensive way for candidates to mount a run for office than a primary election, which requires an investment of advertising dollars to push a statewide candidacy. But, money aside, what they are really saying is they prefer prospective candidates to first obtain the approval of party stalwarts who attend caucuses and conventions before they present their candidacies to the electorate as a whole.

The patently non-inclusive nature of that approach is what has prompted the Count My Vote drive for an initiative petition to allow candidates to bypass the caucus process and be placed on a primary ballot by obtaining the signatures of 2 percent of registered party members in the jurisdiction. The backers of the petition drive say reform is necessary to lure more voters to the booth, and reverse a disturbing trend that has led to Utah having among the nation's lowest levels of voter turnout.

If more inclusiveness in the political process is the goal, which it should be, Democrats have missed a rare opportunity to embrace it as more than a token catch phrase.

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