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In our opinion: With caucus compromise, Utah will enter new political terrain

Published: Saturday, March 8 2014 8:58 p.m. MST

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

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In the best tradition of Utah’s politics, early this week the supporters of the “Count My Vote” initiative joined together with the supporters of the state’s unique system of neighborhood caucuses and political conventions. These rivals had their own distinct conception of good government and democratic participation. Yet they came together in a true compromise.

Those who led and funded the impressive Count My Vote signature-gathering initiative wanted to do away with the party caucuses and move to direct political primaries. It would be there that Republicans or Democrats would pick their respective candidates for office. Initiative supporters say they have collected 100,000 signatures, just shy of the amount necessary to qualify for a citizen initiative on the November ballot.

Those at the forefront of resisting Count My Vote were the leaders and loyalists of the state political parties. They instead extolled the ability for individuals to participate in electoral democracy through the caucuses and to get involved at relatively low cost.

Diving into this maelstrom, Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, proposed a version of SB54 that attempted to thread the needle. It wouldn’t have allowed individuals to get on the primary ballot without caucus support, but it pressed the political parties to open up their primaries to non-affiliated voters.

Count My Vote supporters cried foul at legislative intervention in their initiative. At first, they decried Bramble’s measure. Then — after the first version SB54 passed the Senate — they negotiated with him. Count My Vote leaders and Bramble agreed on their compromise a little more than a week later. This agreed-upon substitute version of SB54 on Wednesday passed the House 49-20 and the Senate 21-7.

What are the terms of the deal? Count My Vote gave up its effort to kill the caucus system. Defenders of the caucuses dropped their opposition to providing an alternative path for candidates to get on the primary ballot. In an important concession to political openness, under the deal the Republican Party primary would be open to voters who are not party members but who are unaffiliated with another party.

We support this honest compromise. It is likely to bring about potentially significant changes in Utah politics. While no one can be exactly certain how the compromise will change electoral politics day-to-day, these important principles are worth considering:

Political competition drives better results. For all of the wisdom of the U.S. Constitution’s framers, they couldn’t see the important and positive role to be played by political parties. It is natural to have differences of opinion in a democracy, and open competition between political parties — and within political parties — can be healthy. The new deal permits candidates to either focus their efforts on party faithful, or to spend campaign resources gathering signatures and make their case to the broader public.

Broadening access to the political process provides legitimacy. Many in the state, including those who haven’t had the opportunity to participate in caucuses, feel disenfranchised when popular political figures have failed to be re-elected without their candidacy going to a vote of the people or even party members in a primary election. Permitting the candidates to take an alternative path — and the independent voters to choose such candidates as their nominee — is good for democracy.

The caucuses can continue to enhance civic dialogue. Some dissatisfaction against the Count My Vote movement stemmed from the perception that it aimed to eliminate one of the most unique features of Utah politics: political decision-making through the caucus and convention system. While any political system has faults, there are advantages for civic dialogue through neighborhood caucuses. Supplemented by the alternative path, candidates endorsed at their conventions will retain the imprimatur of their respective political parties.

We urge Gov. Gary Herbert to sign the compromise. While it is perfect for neither side, it significantly advances opportunities for political competition, openness and civic dialogue.

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