SALT LAKE CITY — An effort is under way to give political candidates another path to get on the primary election ballot outside of Utah's unique party caucus and convention system.
A group of residents plans to launch a statewide initiative drive aimed at expanding the current process to encourage more voter participation. The change would allow candidates nominated at the convention and those who gather enough signatures apart from the convention a place on the ballot. The primary winner would advance to the November election.
Jeremy Roberts, a former Utah County Republican Party secretary who is heading the effort, said while the convention system has worked well, only a tiny percentage of Utahns who become delegates decide parties' nominees.
"One of the concerns I've had, and I haven't been the only person to have this concern, is that, quite frankly, we have so few people involved in our political process in Utah," Roberts said.
"The proposal we have right now is to have the delegate system survive and in some way strengthen it with an alternate means by which someone could get on the ballot," he said.
First, though, the group must get its proposal before Utah voters. To do that, it will have to gather nearly 103,000 signatures of registered voters in 26 of the state's 29 counties to place an initiative on the 2014 election ballot.
This isn't first attempt to ignite interest in altering the caucus system.
A group of well-connected Republicans, including former Gov. Mike Leavitt and Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Kirk Jowers, floated an idea in 2011 to provide a way to get on the primary ballot aside from the convention. They put their plans on hold after deciding there wasn't time to collect signatures on petitions for the 2012 election.
Roberts said he hasn't spoken to Leavitt or Jowers about his proposal, which follows the same basic idea. He patterned the plan after the Connecticut system. It allows party delegates to select candidates for the primary election at a convention. Other candidates may appear on the ballot should they gather signatures of 2 percent of those registered with the party in the district in which they are running.
"It's not that the delegate system is evil. It's just that it's limited in its scope and its size … and another option might be good," Roberts said.
Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said he's open to suggestions to increase participation or find better candidates. But he said Roberts hasn't talked to party leadership about his proposal.
"It's just disappointing that groups would like to change an organization through legal means rather than coming to the organization and having that debate internally," Wright said. "We'd get a lot better result if more people were involved. But it's pretty terrifying that unannounced and on the fly, three or four people come up with what's good for 540,000 Republicans in the state of Utah."
Roberts, who says he has bipartisan support for the initiative, said he's filing the petition now to encourage public discussion and scrutiny.
Former GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman, who was in town for Gov. Gary Herbert's inauguration Monday, said the state would be better served with broader based participation in the election process.
"I think they're onto something that is very, very important and very powerful longer term for the next generation of citizens in our state. The system we have now is antiquated. It's in need of an update," he said.
Huntsman hasn't looked at the group's proposal but said the thought of trying to get people involved early or find alternative pathways to the ballot is a good thing.