In our opinion: Deliberating together

By In Our Opinion

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Feb. 20 2014 11:20 a.m. MST

Updated: Thursday, Feb. 20 2014 11:20 a.m. MST

The momentum behind the Count My Vote initiative in Utah has highlighted access to our state’s political process. Now the Legislature is coming forth with an alternative without eliminating Utah’s unique caucus system.

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The momentum behind the “Count My Vote” initiative in Utah has succeeded in demonstrating considerable public interest in broadening access to our state’s political process. This in itself is a considerable achievement, and worthy of praise, by the organizers of this citizen initiative. They believe that they are on track to raise the 100,000 signatures necessary to get on November’s general election ballot, and then to secure popular assent.

Now the Legislature is coming forth with an alternative of its own, through SB54 introduced by Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo. Bramble’s bill accomplishes many of the key objectives of “Count My Vote” initiative. It does this without necessarily eliminating Utah’s unique system of political decision-making through party caucuses.

SB54 passed a Senate committee Friday and will be debated on the floor of the chamber at 11 a.m. on Thursday morning. It is entirely appropriate for legislators to deliberate on this subject — just as citizens may turn to ballot initiatives when they feel that legislators are unresponsive to their concerns. Now is the time for all parties to listen, to deliberate and to contribute their views and perspectives to this vital democratic discussion.

Utah is unique among states in selecting candidates through a three-step process. First, citizens caucus with their neighbors and select delegates to state and county party conventions. Delegates attending the conventions vote on candidate for state and federal offices, including state legislators and members of Congress.

Only if no candidate for a party's endorsement garners more than 60 percent of delegates at the convention do we move to the second step of the process — the party’s primary election. Primaries allow all members of the political party to vote among the top two candidates, if they have not already been selected in a convention.

That leads us to the general election. With Republicans so dominant in the state, controlling the House 61-14 and the Senate 24-5, the November election can have the air of an afterthought.

Advocates of Utah’s caucus system extol the ability for individuals to participate in electoral democracy on a grass-roots level — and to get involved at relatively low cost. Critics of the system bemoan the lack of competition at the second and third steps of the process. They point to the burden of time imposed by caucuses, and say that the party system favors extreme candidates, depriving everyday citizens of having a real electoral choice in the primary and general elections.

Organizers of the Count My Vote initiative now favor doing away with the caucuses. They want to move to direct primaries in which members of political parties would be permitted to vote for a range of candidates and not those who are hand-picked by caucus delegates.

SB54, by contrast, preserves the party caucus and delegate system — but holds a stick out over the political parties. If political parties don’t take specific, concrete steps to open up their caucuses and primaries, they would be required to hold the direct primary system envisioned by Count My Vote.

In particular, political parties would need to open their primaries to unaffiliated voters. It would also change the threshold for a party candidate to avoid a primary election to 65 percent from 60 percent.

Utah needs significantly greater citizen participation in the candidate nominating process. We are heartened to see the debate shifting from whether reform is required to what kind of reform is required. This shift presents an extraordinary opportunity in Utah’s history of self-government.

We urge all parties focused on this question to make their voices and concerns heard clearly through the historic legislative process that is unfolding. There are tough questions to be addressed. Is a direct primary the only method that would lead to a significant increase in citizen participation? Are the caucus reforms in SB54 sufficient to heighten meaningful participation? Intraparty negotiations broke down over these very issues in the past. But as these questions now come to the floor of the Utah Senate, we hope reason, coupled with an undeviating focus on increased participation, will prevail in the deliberations.

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