SALT LAKE CITY — It's not an election year, but GOP state delegates still have some big political decisions to make when they gather for their annual convention Saturday.
On the agenda for the state Republican Party Organizing Convention are changes to how delegates gather and select candidates through what's known as the caucus and convention system for choosing nominees.
If the changes are adopted by delegates, a group of prominent Republicans behind a proposed initiative petition drive to enact more dramatic reforms to the caucus and convention system has agreed to drop the effort.
The deal offered by the Count My Vote initiative backers has sparked friction over the changes, which would make it easier to participate in party caucuses and raise the vote threshold for candidates to avoid a primary in statewide and federal races.
"I thought, as the leader of the party, I should reach out," outgoing Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said of his discussions with the initiative backers, a group that includes former Gov. Mike Leavitt.
Wright brought the group's concerns about the impact of the current caucus and convention system on voter turnout to party officials, who agreed in February to start talking about making changes.
Just before those changes went before the party's central committee last month, the group sent a letter detailing what changes needed to be made to avoid an initiative petition drive to put the issue before voters in 2014.
"Some people felt like the tone was a little demanding," Wright said of the Count My Vote letter, which he described as positive. "One of the members referred to it as blackmail."
The central committee approved a resolution supporting improvements that included proxy voting for Republicans unable to attend the designated caucus night and increasing the number of state delegates.
But efforts to raise the 60 percent threshold to become the party's nominee at convention to the 70 percent sought by the Count My Vote group failed to win the approval of the central committee.
Now state delegates will be asked to endorse the resolution and consider raising the threshold to either two-thirds of the vote, which had more support among the central committee members, or 70 percent.
Wright said the party needs to take the initiative seriously.
A poll taken in January for the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy found 66.6 percent support for the initiative's goal of allowing candidates access to a primary ballot through collecting voter signatures.
"It's a legitimate threat," Wright said of the possibility future candidates could choose to bypass the caucus and convention altogether and still compete to be the GOP nominee.
The party leader, whose replacement will be selected at the convention, said the changes up for a vote Saturday "may save the caucus-convention system in the end."
Party officials point out that only four the 44 races since 2000 for the U.S. House and Senate, governor, attorney general, auditor and treasurer would have gone to a primary had the threshold been at two-thirds.
Just a single race, the 2008 bid for the 2nd District nomination, would have been affected had the threshold been at 70 percent. In the final round of balloting, Bill Dew won the nomination over former congressman Merrill Cook with 69.3 percent of the vote.
State delegate Morgan Philpot, who would have forced Gov. Gary Herbert into a primary at last year's GOP convention and faced a primary in his 2010 bid for Congress had the threshold been at two-thirds, said he won't support raising it.
"I'll vote 'no' out of protest for the fact that the party is failing in its job to be deliberative," Philpot said. "What's been happening is this issue is being fast-tracked by Thomas Wright."
Philpot called the initiative "a scare tactic" and said he believes the Count My Vote effort will go forward no matter what happens at the state convention.
"They are threatening the party," he said. "That's not a good way to increase participation."
Republicans, Philpot said, should fight to keep the current caucus and convention system.
"It requires desire and commitment in order to participate," he said. "I have not seen that it's difficult to participate in the political process. I think it's easy to participate for people who choose and are willing."
But the Republicans leading Count My Vote disagree.
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, has been talking for years about the link between the caucus and convention system and the state's low voter turnout.
Campaigning, he said, is focused almost exclusively on party delegates in the hope of avoiding a primary.
"All of the attention of the candidates, parties and outside groups is focused on just a couple of thousand people," Jowers said.
Also, he said, many people are precluded from participating in neighborhood caucus meetings where the delegate selection process begins because they're held on a single night.
Jowers, chairman of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy charged with finding ways to boost turnout, said the system was seen as "the 800-pound gorilla of our voter malaise."
But, he said, the issue "was quickly seen as too controversial and too complex to deal with in light of all the other recommendations we were also pursuing," and the commission did not recommend changes to the caucus and convention system.
The Count My Vote effort brought together Jowers and others concerned about the impact on voter turnout, including Leavitt and political consultant LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News.
"The system is more susceptible to those who tend to be activists and more passionate," Webb said. "The reality is not everyone is that way, but they still care about their country and their state, and they still want their voices known."
Even supporters of the current system acknowledge it can be unduly influenced by outside groups if Utah Republicans don't participate in large numbers. Outside groups helped oust former Sen. Bob Bennett at the GOP's 2010 convention.
FreedomWorks, a national tea party organization, tried to do the same to Sen. Orrin Hatch last year and succeeded in forcing him into a primary, but Hatch was re-elected to a seventh term.
Utah County GOP Vice Chairman-elect Daryl Acumen blogged in 2012 about how easy the caucus and convention system can be manipulated "by well-funded organizations with an agenda," citing FreedomWorks as the "most blatant example."
FreedomWorks, Acumen said, sent out a mailer instructing Republicans on how to become a delegate so they could help "give Orrin Hatch the same send-off we gave Bob Bennett."
A statement by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urging attendance at political caucus meetings helped both Republicans and Democrats see record turnouts at the March 2012 meetings.
"This is the way the caucus system should work," Acumen said. "The bottom line is this: Our enemy is apathy. If people are not getting out, a small group of folks can have a magnified impact."
Heather Williamson, FreedomWorks Utah state coordinator, said the organization doesn't have an official position on the changes to the caucus and convention system, but most members like it the way it is.
Williamson said she doesn't necessarily agree that the current system has worked well for FreedomWorks.
"It's just so funny when people think you're manipulating the system when you're just trying to get people more involved in the system," she said.
Utah Democrats won't hold their state convention until June, and state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis has already said delegates will choose between either keeping the current system or doing away with it entirely.
"This clearly has nothing to do with Democrats," Dabakis said of the initiative effort. "We're collateral damage."
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