Robert Bennett: Considerations on 'Count My Vote'

Published: Monday, Sept. 23 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

The leading organization working to open up Utah's nominating system so that more voters can participate, "Count My Vote," has announced that it has raised over $500,000 to support the effort. This has put the issue back in the news.

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The leading organization working to open up Utah's nominating system so that more voters can participate, "Count My Vote," has announced that it has raised over $500,000 to support the effort. This has put the issue back in the news.

Why should we consider change? Because Utah has become a reliably one-party state in elections involving major statewide offices, which means that that party's closed convention/primary structure has become the sole determinant of who will hold those offices. Many voters feel shut out and disenfranchised by it, which was not true when the first version of the current system was adopted in the 1930s.

Real pressure to make a change began in 2004, when Olene Walker, an incumbent governor with an approval rating in the 80 percent range, was denied a spot on the primary ballot. It resurfaced in 2010, when the same thing happened to me. (Admittedly, my approval rating, while in positive territory, was nowhere near as high as Gov. Walker's had been.) Polling on the subject shows that a solid majority of Utahns support alteration of the convention's rules, if not its outright elimination.

An argument consistently made against any changes has been that the present system gives "ordinary citizens" a way to overcome the advantages of money in politics. Tinker with it, it is said, and the wealthiest candidates will take over.

May I respond with some history?

In 1992, multiple candidates ran for the Republican nominations for governor and senator, with these convention results: In the gubernatorial primary, Richard Eyre, a highly successful writer of many best-sellers, was pitted against t Michael Leavitt, CEO of the state's largest insurance agency. I suspect that both were millionaires. In the senatorial contest, Joe Cannon, former CEO of Geneva Steel, was opposing me, former CEO of Franklin Quest. I know that both of us were millionaires.

The winning candidate who emerged from the 2004 convention that kept Olene Walker off the primary ballot was Jon Huntsman Jr., who is not poor, and the man who replaced me in the Senate, Mike Lee, was a highly successful lawyer/lobbyist whose $600,000 plus income in the year before he ran eclipsed that of any other candidate in the field, including mine.

Set aside the question of whether or not these choices were wise ones; my point is that the current closed convention/primary structure does not shield the process from the power of political money. Orrin Hatch demonstrated that in 2012, when he spent big and won big. Arguing otherwise ignores historical evidence.

So, when "Count My Vote" comes forward with specifics on how they would recommend opening things up in order to encourage more participation in politics, we should not retreat behind the false claim that the present system somehow empowers "ordinary people." Remember that the "ordinary people" of Utah used to have one of the highest percentages in the country in terms of voter participation but now rank among the lowest. That's not something we should be proud of.

Lincoln famously called America "Government of the people, by the people and for the people." I believe it is weakened when it becomes "Government of fewer of the people," even if that means that my favored candidate is more likely to win. Perhaps the real reason some are defending the present system in Utah is not because they are afraid change will increase the power of political money but because they are afraid change will bring different ideological results. If so, that means they don't really trust the people.

Let's at least hear what "Count My Vote" has to say.

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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