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New Salt Lake County GOP chairman questions changes to caucus system

Published: Tuesday, April 23 2013 6:15 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Newly elected Salt Lake County GOP Chairman Chad Bennion said the party's caucus and convention system for selecting candidates should not be changed just to avoid a threatened initiative petition drive.

"My experience tells me, regardless of what's done, they're going to file the initiative," Bennion, a former state lawmaker, said Tuesday. "I think if we're going to make changes, they need to be changes the body supports and that are going to benefit the public."

Bennion and other delegates to the party's state convention next month are being asked by the initiative backers to raise the threshold of delegate votes candidates need to win at convention to avoid a primary election from 60 percent to 70 percent.

The initiative backers, a group called Count My vote that includes former Gov. Mike Leavitt and LaVarr Webb, a political consultant who writes a column for the Deseret News, also want access increased to caucuses where delegates are chosen.

Webb said Tuesday the group is continuing to ready a petition drive to get an initiative expected to call for more sweeping changes on the 2014 general election ballot, but is waiting to see what action is taken at the state GOP convention next month.

"There are some people who think the convention has a possibility of doing some significant things," Webb said, while others associated with the effort intended to increase voter participation disagree.

At last month's GOP central committee meeting, Bennion said he backed raising the threshold to 66 percent but not to 70 percent. Both proposals failed, but the central committee did approve a resolution dealing with boosting caucus participation.

"I just know what the practical implications will be in Salt Lake County," where Democrats are the most competitive, Bennion said. "It's going to mean we're going to have more contested primaries, with more candidates chewing on each other."

The current system for selecting party nominees already works well, said Bennion, an administrative representative and paralegal at a local law firm. Primaries, he said, add to the cost of a campaign and can damage the image of the winner.

Bennion said he doesn't agree that changes to the caucus and convention system would encourage more voter turnout.

"I don't know that there's any silver magic bullet that's going to change that," he said.

Outgoing Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright is pushing both an increase in the threshold and making it easier for Republicans to participate in caucus night. Wright said any changes made at the state convention would only affect state and federal races.

"The question that should be on everyone's mind is: What will get more Utahns engaged in their government?" he said. "There are a lot of good Republicans on both sides of this issue."

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

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