In our opinion: Time for caucus reform

Published: Saturday, Sept. 28 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Former First Lady Norma Matheson, left, and former Gov. Norm Bangerter listen during the press conference for "Count My Vote."

Matt Gade, Deseret News

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The success of the "Count My Vote" efforts to place caucus reform on Utah ballots has leaders in both major parties protecting the status quo. They want to maintain the current system that provides very active participants disproportionate influence over who holds elective office, but the reasons they offer for their resistance to reform don't measure up when compared to the historical record.

Party leaders insist that a system that results in more primary elections would make it impossible for someone of modest means to run for office. Certainly, the expense of politics is daunting to many, yet the caucus system has done little or nothing to mitigate that.

Consider Sen. Orrin Hatch, who recognized that his biggest obstacle to reelection in 2012 would be in the caucuses. He dedicated vast resources to organizing for the caucuses, dwarfing the efforts of all those attempting to compete with him. And while it's true that two years previous to Hatch's victory, Mike Lee defeated the better-funded incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett, he was helped considerably by out-of-state money from national tea party political action committees who viewed the caucus system as a prime opportunity to manipulate a federal election with relatively minimal financial resources. At times, the caucus system actually invites participation from the sort of well-heeled power brokers it is ostensibly designed to discourage.

Rather than keep money out of politics, the caucus system has, instead, reinforced ideological rigidity on both sides. Those most motivated to participate often come with strong ideological commitments that don't represent the preferences of the general electorate. Utah's voter participation has sagged over the years, and a sense of voter futility may have added to that trend. When the big decisions have already been made at party conventions, the general public is left with little or no opportunity to weigh in.

It is simply not accurate to say the current system is somehow more reflective of the will of the people than a more open system would be.

"Count My Vote" has raised significant money and generated tremendous enthusiasm from disparate parts of the Utah electorate, indicating it enjoys broad support. Certainly it deserves an opportunity to go to the voters, despite opposition from party establishments. No political party should stand in the way of the will of the people, nor should an electoral system exclude the public from deciding who its candidates ought to be.

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