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My view: We need real primaries in Utah

Published: Tuesday, May 28 2013 12:55 p.m. MDT

This May 18, 2013, file photo, shows people looking on during the Utah Republican Party's annual organizing convention, in Sandy, Utah. Utah Republicans pushing for reforms in their state caucus and convention system say they're moving forward with a plan to put an initiative before voters next year. Prominent Republicans in the group This May 18, 2013, file photo, shows people looking on during the Utah Republican Party's annual organizing convention, in Sandy, Utah. Utah Republicans pushing for reforms in their state caucus and convention system say they're moving forward with a plan to put an initiative before voters next year. Prominent Republicans in the group "Count My Vote" are planning an initiative allowing candidates to make a primary ballot with signatures instead of convention nominations. (Rick Bowmer, AP)

"The time has come to include all voters in picking candidates, not just an elite few,” reads a recent editorial (“Utah’s Caucus System Needs Reform,” May 23). Yet, the “Count My Vote” ballot measure giving candidates an alternate route to their party’s closed primary will not include all voters in picking candidates.

Let me be clear: I would be happy to sign their petition and vote for the measure, as it gets rid of the injustice that occurs when a tiny fraction of the population can block a popular candidate like Bob Bennett or Olene Walker from even getting their name on a primary ballot for public vetting. But I have no motivation to help with the measure beyond that because it really won’t make a marked difference in improving Utah’s elections. Only candidates with substantial resources could possibly get away with skirting the party’s convention system. And unaffiliated voters, Utah’s largest registered voter group, would still get no say until after the decision has been made. If we truly want a system that will include all voters in picking candidates, we need to move to a “Nonpartisan” Blanket Primary with IRV.

In such a system, all candidates (from all party preferences to no party preference) would appear on the same primary ballot, and all voters would vote in the same primary. Candidates could continue to indicate their party preference on the ballot, if they so desired. But without regard to party preference, candidates surpassing a cut-off threshold would advance to the general election. Unlike top-two primaries in Washington, California, and Louisiana, we could implement some form of ranked-choice balloting to guard against the spoiler effect and increase competition and choice.

Most party faithful balk at the idea of non-party faithful getting a role in choosing party nominees. They’re right; the Supreme Court seems to agree with them, having indicated that parties can’t be forced to open their primaries or accept nominees they don’t want. But, the Supreme Court also says that citizens don’t have to accept the inherent conflict that is an electoral system that classifies parties as private organizations, but simultaneously gives those private organizations almost complete control of the public election process. Voters can change the entire system to a “nonpartisan” blanket primary, where voters, not parties, would control who qualifies for the general election. Parties could still hold conventions, endorse candidates, and advocate for candidates, but they’d do so as any other private, special interest group.

George Washington himself decried the party system, yet the courts and the public have generally come to accept it. Why do we accept a system where parties are allowed to close their primaries and exclude a huge segment of the population from participating? After all, the government pays for closed primaries with tax dollars, assists dominant parties in their lop-sided fundraising through check-a-buck, facilitates the endless cycle of one-party domination with the straight-ticket voting option, and maybe most egregious, gives each party, whether they have 85 percent support, or 1 percent support, one and only one slot on the general ballot. A dominant party usually isn’t too concerned about minor parties having a slot — they aren’t a threat — but dominant parties take as a given that we won't even think about breaking up their 60+ percent monopoly on a general ballot.

Utah, it’s time to quit supporting an election system that perpetuates a dominant monopoly, and excludes so many voters from having a meaningful say in the determinative elections in each race. It’s time for “non-partisan” blanket primaries.

Tiani Coleman has a J.D. from Cornell Law School and is a past chair of the Salt Lake County Republican Party. She is now an unaffiliated voter.

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