SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told Utah lawmakers Monday he "feels passionately" about the state's unique caucus and convention system for selecting political party nominees.
"I think it's important to have a process that forces discussion on issues and principles," Chaffetz said during his annual address to the Utah House. "We can't allow big money and big name ID to dominate the process."
Chaffetz described how he struggled to connect with the delegates chosen at caucus meetings to vote on nominees at party conventions when he challenged a sitting Republican congressman, former Rep. Chris Cannon.
Even though he now can attract the kind of attention and money that he faced then, Chaffetz said he still needs to "roll up his shirtsleeves" and sit down with delegates if he wants to keep his seat.
In the state Senate, Chaffetz said he's open to some tweaks to the caucus and convention system but cautioned that the "little guy" would be lost if the state shifted to a direct primary.
"When I was nobody trying to become somebody, I had ideas and principles,” Chaffetz said. "I didn’t have big name ID. I didn’t have big dollars. The only way for me to go through this process was to go neighborhood by neighborhood. You couldn’t pronounce Chaffetz, let alone spell it."
Utah voters are being asked to sign the Count My Vote initiative petition to replace the current system for choosing party nominees with a direct primary. If enough signatures are collected by mid-April, the initiative will be on the November ballot.
Lawmakers are trying to counter the initiative with SB54, a bill that would allow political parties to avoid a direct primary by making some changes intended to increase participation in the caucus and convention system.
On Sunday, an email from former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney supporting Count My Vote became public. Romney had previously spoken out against the GOP using caucuses and conventions to choose nominees.
The statement by Romney, one of Utah's most popular political figures, drew criticism from groups organized to oppose the initiative.
"While I may respect Mr. Romney, it is no surprise that a man who could not win by walking neighborhoods in Iowa would not like the convention process," said James Humphreys of Protect our Neighborhood Elections.
Humphreys said "being accountable to average people is hard for those who only want to invest money and not their time to really serve the voters they claim to represent. Mass marketing is not education."
Brandon Beckham of Keep Our Caucus said Romney should stick to national politics.
Saying the organization was "very disappointed" at Romney's endorsement, Beckham said "his involvement appears to be a slap in the face to many Utahns who not only support the caucus system but also voted for him in 2012."