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In our opinion: Democracy and political participation

Published: Sunday, March 16 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Rich McKeown, Count My Vote's executive chairman, left, and Utah's Majority Leader Brad Dee speak following a news conference a announcing a deal between state legislators and the Count My Vote group over Utah's caucus-convention system on Sunday, March 2, 2014, in Salt Lake City.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

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Nearly six months ago on Capitol Hill, a group of political leaders and former office-holders in Utah announced the launch of their initiative drive, “Count My Vote.” Their success in gathering nearly all the 102,000 signatures necessary to qualify for the November 2014 ballot demonstrated a pent-up demand among voters for changing some aspects of Utah’s unique electoral system.

Speaking on Capitol Hill in September, former Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt joined former Republican Gov. Norm Bangerter and former Utah first lady Norma Matheson, wife of the late Democratic Gov. Scott Matheson, to push for a dramatic change. They would have eliminated Utah’s system of neighborhood caucuses and party conventions in favor of direct primary elections by the political parties.

“We're confident people want a change. We're the only state where a handful of people, just a handful of people, routinely choose [candidates]," Leavitt said at the time. "This is a discussion not about political parties. It's a discussion about how the people want to choose the candidates for public office. That's the reason we had to use an initiative to get this done."

Last Monday, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill, SB54, described by some as the compromise that killed Count My Vote. Indeed, as a result of the measure’s passage by the Legislature and its enactment into law, the organizers of initiative suspended signature-gathering. The effort to ensure a direct primary met with success by a vote of the Legislature, if not through their intended citizen initiative.

But this victory is not necessarily the one that Count My Vote supporters had envisioned.

Instead of killing the caucuses, the compromise breathes new life into them. This week, the Democratic Party will caucus on Tuesday, March 18, while the Republican Party will do the same on Thursday, March 20. At these neighborhood gatherings, grass-roots members of these parties will elect delegates to their respective parties’ political conventions. Those conventions will continue to nominate candidates for state and federal election.

But beginning with the 2016 political cycles – and this is a key difference – candidates eliminated at the party convention level will have another chance to get on their primary ballot if they follow filing deadline rules.

Currently, only if no candidate garners more than 60 percent of delegates is there a primary election permitting party members to vote among the top two candidates. In 2016, by contrast, candidates will enjoy an alternate path to the primary, by securing significant signatures to demonstrate grass-roots support for their candidacy. Equally important, the primary elections of both major political parties will now – under the agreement – be open to non-affiliated voters. It is likely that independent voters will moderate more extreme elements of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

The reactions to the compromise SB54 legislation – which this newspaper supported – have ranged from eager acceptance to concerned wariness. Nothwithstanding the preservation of caucuses and conventions, some commentators believe that they will effectively become non-binding. Other commentators believe that the change will further diminish the influence of the Democratic Party and create two clear factions in the Republican Party: a “caucus faction” and a “signature-gathering faction.”

While both of those futures are possible, neither is a pre-ordained conclusion.

Utah’s democratic process and political future is what its citizens make of it. We believe that the compromise SB54 represents the best of politics in this state. It ensures the continuation of system of neighborhood caucuses, while still broadening access to the electoral process. It offers the hope that both Democratic and Republican Parties will seek candidates that appeal to the center of Utah’s political gravity. It could even lead to a revival of a more robust two-party system in the state.

It’s easy to forget that the Democratic Party was once the dominant force in the state’s politics. Prior to 1985, Democrats held the governor’s office for 48 years while Republicans held the office 41 years. The percentage of Republican representatives and senators in the Legislature was only 10 percent in 1935, 34 percent in 1944, 53 percent in 1964, and 64 percent in 1994. Today, of course, 82 percent of legislators are Republican.

A democratic government requires the honest airing of differences of opinion in an atmosphere of civility and respect. It is natural that there will be such differences, about matters large and small. What is most significant, however, is that we remain committed to abide by the norms and procedures of democratic decision-making.

The first and foremost of these principles is that citizens embrace their civic responsibilities and privileges to participate in the political process, and that they do so by attending and voting in the neighborhood caucus of the political party to which they belong. We encourage all to do so.

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