OGDEN — Delegates to the Utah Democratic Party convention voted Saturday to preserve the convention/caucus system they use to select candidates, rejecting arguments that primary elections are more inclusive for the general public.
Meeting at the Ogden Eccles Convention Center, delegates voted 53-47 percent to stand by the 117-year-old convention/caucus system, rejecting arguments that primary elections help candidates establish name recognition and assist with fundraising efforts.
Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said convention delegates, through their votes, gave the party "marching orders."
“In no way was this a vote for the status quo — we have heard the call for more primaries, and much more engagement. Now we will begin the process of discussing ways to make our candidate selection process better," Dabakis said.
He said the party has launched an effort to register 40,000 people as Democrats by November 2014.
Party leaders also acknowledged Utah's changing demographics, particularly the state's growing Latino population.
Josie Valdez, vice chairwoman of the Utah Democratic Party, noted the high percentages of Latino voters who voted for successful Democratic candidates Rep. Jim Matheson and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams.
"Together, we are going to turn Utah blue," she said.
Democrats conducted a spirited debate whether to preserve their caucus/convention system rather than move to a direct primary to select candidates.
Democratic Party Executive Director Matt Lyon told delegates the issue came down to two basic questions: "How do we as Democrats select a nominating system that elects more Democratic candidates?" and "Which system better embodies the principles of the Democratic Party?"
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, advocated for the caucus system, explaining that direct primaries exclude candidates who don't have deep pockets.
"If it wasn’t for the caucus system, I wouldn’t be here," Robles said.
But Dorothy Engelman, chairwoman of the Washington County Democratic Party, said she had to drive 350 miles to participate in Saturday's party convention.
If she or others are excluded from taking part in party activities as a matter of geography "you're out of luck."
"Primaries don't discriminate by geography," she said, arguing that primary elections would increase participation and broaden the base of the party.
Jay Seegmiller, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Utah's 2nd District in 2012, said there's no clear cut answer to the choice between the caucus/convention process and direct primaries.
His experiences on the campaign trail, however, suggest Utah Democrats have a lot of work to do with the electorate to persuade more of them to vote, let alone for Democratic candidates.
"People said, 'It doesn't matter. Nothing changes.' That's why they don't vote," Seegmiller said.
Some party delegates took shots at embattled Republican Attorney General John Swallow, with Weber County Democratic Party Chairman John Miles going so far to say if Democrat Dee Smith had been elected instead, the state wouldn't be in the mess it is now.
But Dabakis said state's problems are larger than the political and possibly criminal issues faced by Swallow and possibly by former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
"This is endemic of 27 years of one-party rule where there are no checks and balances, where very important, critical decisions are made in closed caucuses where there isn't the daylight. Too many contracts go without daylight," he said.
He likened state government to a wooden platform that has been "infested by termites and it's collapsing. It's the whole platform, not just the last guy who stood up there."
It's time for Utah voters, he said, to give Democrats another look.
"They're smart. They're not ideological. They can solve problems. They're not part of this giant good ol' boy network that has run the state into serious problems," he said.