Utah's Republican Party is beginning to consider the possibility of a more open political process, perhaps finding ways for candidates to get on primary ballots without having to keep another candidate from gaining 60 percent of delegate votes at a convention. The topic received considerable discussion at a state party meeting last weekend.
The discussion was spurred by a possible initiative effort, led in part by Deseret News columnist and former managing editor LaVarr Webb, currently the publisher of utahpolicy.com. It shouldn't take a petition. Change ought to be spurred by a desire to make Utah's political system more open, inclusive and fair, abandoning a system that is among the most restrictive in the nation.
Party politics usually isn't a topic of discussion for this page. In Utah, however, the GOP holds a unique role as the state's dominant political organization. In many races, candidates face little or no opposition from any other party. The Republican nominating process becomes the de facto election. Plenty of evidence exists to suggest that delegates to party conventions do not represent party membership as a whole.
Three years ago, a Dan Jones & Associates poll for the Deseret News and KSL found that women made up 55 percent of Republican voters in the state but only 25 percent of that year's delegates to the Republican state convention. Democrats also had a gap, but not quite as wide. The poll also found an ideological gulf, with delegates tending toward both parties' extreme edges. The overwhelming majority of delegates in both parties had lived in the state longer than 20 years, which seemed out of place in one of the nation's fastest growing states.
The Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, published a report a little more than a year ago that said a more open and inclusive system would have changed the look of many elections over the past decade. The field of participation would have been broader, and those who ended up in elected office would have been more representative of the wishes of a wide array of constituents. In addition, it's likely that voter turnout would have been higher. States that erect barriers to participation tend to have lower turnout rates than the more open ones, and Utah's rate has been on a decline for years.
Last year may have seen some of these trends reversed, as participation in party caucus meetings was much more robust than in recent memory. That was encouraging, but it did not remove the need for change.
Proponents will argue that the current system is open to all comers, and that people who don't participate have only themselves to blame. That ignores the power of rules. The narrower the process, the easier exclusion becomes. In the few other states that hold nominating conventions, the convention is not a way to avoid a primary; it is the way to qualify for a primary. Usually, candidates need between 15 and 30 percent support from delegates to qualify. In Utah, a candidate must get support from 40 percent or more of delegates.
That means special interests or motivated ideologues have far too easy a time eliminating a candidate, even if that candidate is an incumbent who enjoys widespread support among mainstream voters.
It's past time for both political parties to abandon the idea that a small group of people can best guard party ideology. If that takes a petition drive, so be it. However, it would be far better for the parties themselves to push for reform.