Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Count My Vote: Exploring the impact of compromise legislation

Published: Sunday, March 9 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

The Utah Capitol Building in Salt Lake City.

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Both of us have spent many years following and participating in Utah politics. (Yes, we know … this is a sad statement.) If the political parties adopt the reforms in the “compromise legislation” — approved by Count My Vote (CMV) and passed by the Legislature — the change in how parties pick their nominees will be very significant.

We explore the impact.

Is the compromise superior or inferior to the CMV petition and the legislation sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble?

Pignanelli: “Democracy is always an unfinished experiment, testing the capacity of each generation to live freedom nobly.” ― George Weigel

The movement to topple, or at least change, Utah’s unique nomination process structure is unstoppable. This “JELL-O Revolution” to wrest political control from party activists has quiet support among many Utahns. Bramble’s original legislation — reflecting this emotion — was an elegant, simple solution that enhanced the advantages of the delegate system while fostering moderation.

Conversely, the compromise is complicated and problematic (Drafters agree kinks will need to be worked out in the next legislative session). Candidates can secure a nomination either through a convention, or by obtaining a requisite number of signatures. Fortunately, Bramble honorably insisted that unaffiliated voters participate in primary elections.

Most Utahns are demanding a change of some measure, which will be accomplished in this bloodless gelatinous coup.

Webb: Certainly, no perfect nomination process exists. All have pluses and minuses. The caucus/convention system has some excellent qualities, but some glaring weaknesses. Ditto the direct primary system. If the compromise goes into effect, we will essentially have both processes, and together they will work quite well. The result will be broader participation, especially as primary elections will be open to unaffiliated voters. Candidates will be motivated to reach out to both the ideological base of their party and more mainstream voters. That will be good for Utah politics.

Why did the supporters of CMV, and the opposing powerful legislators, agree to a compromise?

Pignanelli: Many dynamics were in play. CMV was facing a substantial challenge to collect the needed signatures in the rural Senate districts. Gov. Gary Herbert shrewdly threatened to veto the Bramble legislation. Legislators were anxious that a veto override session would generate hostile media attention. Political party officers did not want to agitate delegates or big money donors by staking public positions. Such pressure produces statesmanship and an appetite for compromise … especially when everyone wants to dodge a bullet.

Webb: As a CMV volunteer, I can forthrightly say that had the compromise fallen through, CMV was fully committed to complete the signature-gathering process and run an aggressive general election campaign. But it would have been terribly expensive, an enormous amount of work, and very divisive for both political parties. The compromise isn’t perfect, but it’s really quite good. To get on the primary ballot by gathering signatures, a candidate will have to work extremely hard. But that’s appropriate, because it also takes a great deal of effort to get through the caucus/convention system.

How does the dual-track process of selecting nominees impact Utah politics?

Pignanelli: Politicos predict well-funded ideologically moderate candidates will avoid the pain of interacting with extremist delegates and collect (aka purchase) the 28,000 signatures for a spot in the primary election. This is viewed as a direct threat to U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, who has a lock on GOP delegates but could be vulnerable in a primary. (However, I still contend Lee will be tough to beat in 2016.)

Long term, this bargain will fundamentally influence Utah elections and political parties. Candidates will be forced to secure support beyond just the special-interest groups that dominate the conventions. The most important feature is allowing independent Utahns to vote in the primaries. Mainstream politicians can redirect their fawning from narrow special-interest groups to a broader audience.

Webb: We won’t see immediate, dramatic change in most races. Popular incumbents will still win. Republicans will still win in most districts. All candidates will still need to appeal to their party base, because the base is more activist, more willing to volunteer and votes in higher percentages.

But in certain races the dual-track system may have a tempering impact on candidates, resulting in more mainstream positions. Candidates using the caucus/convention process can’t just woo the far right or far left and ignore mainstream voters because he or she may face a more mainstream candidate who gets on the primary ballot by gathering signatures. Candidates will also need to appeal to centrist unaffiliated voters, who will be allowed to vote in primary elections.

And with delegates no longer guarding the only route to the primary ballot, incumbent politicians will have to worry about all primary voters, not just their delegates. While the ultimate result may be more mainstream public policy, Utah will certainly remain a conservative state with conservative values. And those who are most active will still have the greatest influence.

It will be very interesting to see which method of getting on the primary ballot turns out to be the most popular. Many candidates may want to do both.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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