Across America, voters and candidates alike say political campaigns are too long and too expensive.

There is much complaining, with pundits and scholars wondering out loud how to make the nominating/election processes shorter and more financially accessible.

Utah has tried, at least in its partisan primary elections, to find an answer.

Our partisan primaries are only six weeks long. True, in races like the governor's or for Congress, many candidates announce at least a year in advance. And gubernatorial and congressional races can cost upward of $1 million or more by Election Day.

But in the formal time frame — from the nominating convention where the candidate field is whittled down to two candidates to the primary election — is just over six weeks.

Years ago, Utah political parties used to hold county nominating conventions in May (where political offices wholly within a county, like county council or many legislative districts, are decided), and the state party conventions were in June.

The primary campaigns ran throughout the summer, culminating in a September primary election. Then general election campaigns were only two months or so long.

But that changed in 1984. That's when the majority Republicans in the Legislature worried that then-Democratic Gov. Scott M. Matheson, a popular guy, might seek a third term. The GOP gubernatorial candidates would spend all their money and effort fighting against each other all the way to September, while Matheson raised money and votes.

So legislators started fiddling with convention and primary dates — the end result being the current timetable settled on more than a decade ago.

A six-week primary sounds good — shorter and less expensive. The reality, however, is mixed.

Utah Democrats rarely have a primary election (the exception is when there is an open, major seat, like the U.S. Senate in 1992). But Republicans routinely have primary elections, sometimes even when an incumbent is running.

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, for one reason or another, has been forced into primaries for his 3rd Congressional District seat time and again. This year Cannon barely survived the May state Republican Party Convention, getting out into a primary by maybe eight or nine delegate votes.

Cannon faces Jason Chaffetz, who nearly ran him out of office, in the only major primary in the state this year. Primary elections are June 24.

I say that Utah has had mixed results in its short primary campaigns because voter interest in those intra-party campaigns has greatly waxed and waned — especially when there is a GOP and Democratic primary for the same office.

In those cases, it is not uncommon for the GOP primary candidates to each get nearly as many votes as the total number of people casting ballots for the Democrats.

This year there is only one statewide GOP primary — in the state treasurer's race where Deputy Treasurer Richard Ellis faces Rep. Mark Walker, R-Sandy. Even though that race has turned bitter, I don't foresee a lot of people who have no other primary contests going to the polls just for the treasurer's contest.

Chaffetz says that it's up to him and Cannon to create enough interest that there is a decent turnout in the 3rd District GOP primary. But so far that interest isn't there, with two weeks left in the primary.

Low primary voter turnout has been blamed on several things — but political scientists say any June election is a tough sell because people are starting their summer vacations and aren't thinking politics, etc.

And Utah GOP leaders have closed their primaries, driving down interest among political independents, who make up around a third of Utah's electorate.

It would be better to have a May primary. But that would force back all the nominating conventions, neighborhood mass meetings and candidate filing deadlines. And that would push candidate filings very close, or into, the Legislature's general session. Lawmakers don't want to do that at all — they could find angry constituents filing against them just as the toughest decisions came at session's end.

So Utah has done what so many people want — created a shorter election process — and it hasn't worked out as well as it should have.


Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com.