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Richard Davis: Utah politics are about to change, despite parties

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 25 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Change is coming to Utah politics, whether the political parties want it or not.

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Two recent developments suggest that dramatic change is coming to Utah politics. One is the announcement by the Count My Vote Group that it filed paperwork to start gathering signatures to place its initiative for party primaries on the November 2014 ballot. Moreover, the group already had announced it has collected $500,000 for the initiative effort. That is seven months before the group must file its petitions and 14 months before the election.

The other development was last Saturday’s decision by the Republican State Central Committee once again to oppose reform of the caucus-convention system. That decision led even Utah Republican Party Chair James Evans to complain about how his hands were tied in an effort to pre-empt the Count My Vote effort. The best the central committee would do in response was to refer possible reform to a party standing committee.

The Count My Vote effort seems well on its way to succeeding in overturning Utah’s restrictive caucus-convention system through state law. With its war chest, it seems likely Count My Vote can collect the required number of signatures. And its chances of winning the initiative are fairly good, as well. A poll earlier this year found that 58 percent of voters favor the initiative proposed by Count My Vote.

None of this is really necessary. Both major political parties have the ability to make these changes on their own without the people of the state going to the trouble of an expensive initiative campaign. They can alter the threshold for candidates to win the nomination at convention, allow a bypass of the convention through signatures of partisans, open up caucus attendance to allow electronic participation, and other reforms. The power to reform rests squarely in their hands.

Sadly, they are unwilling to use it. Repeatedly, the Republican State Central Committee has blocked potential changes to Utah’s unique nominating system. Democrats, too, voted at their last convention to maintain the caucus-convention system and failed to consider possible alternatives.

If the two parties want their nominating power to be stripped from them through an initiative process, they should continue to oppose reform. But the consequence will be a weakening of the parties as forces in Utah electoral politics. Many voters will consider that a healthy move, but the party organizations will suffer in their ability not only to nominate candidates, but also to shape campaigns and mobilize voters. If that is their goal, they are accomplishing it nicely.

But if it isn’t, then it is time to face the reality that forces are moving beyond their control, unless they act quickly. Both political party organizations should set a goal to propose significant changes to their nominating processes by the end of the year. They should establish public committees that operate openly to take public input and then explore and propose alternatives to the current caucus-convention system.

What reforms should those respective ad hoc committees consider? One reform would be to automatically put the two top convention vote getters on the primary ballot so the opportunity to vote in a primary is a common rather than a rare event. The parties should open their caucuses to independents in order to demonstrate they don’t fear the independent voter will wreck their parties. (Democrats do this, but Republicans refuse to do so.) Also, those caucuses should allow electronic participation so voters can select delegates and participate in party business without being physically present at that particular time. Additionally, primaries should be open to independents for the same reason. (Democrats already do this, but Republicans no longer do.)

If the two party organizations make major changes in their nomination processes, not only will they involve many voters (including many of their own partisans) who are now excluded from the nominating process, they also will change their image from reactionaries unwilling to move with the times to progressive parties capable of adapting to change. The political party organizations can take back the initiative from the Count My Vote group, but time to do so is running out. Otherwise, they will become largely irrelevant in their own nominating processes.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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