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Rolly: Fighting over odd nominating system

Published April 13, 2013 1:01 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The current debate over reforming Utah's peculiar way of nominating candidates to political office exposes a culture in the Republican Party that attempts to keep power in the hands of a few.

Utah's unique system of electing delegates at neighborhood caucuses, who then elect their party's nominees at county and state conventions with a low threshold of just 60 percent to avoid a primary, is just one way that political insiders have tried to lock the majority of voters out of the process.

Gerrymandering, or drawing congressional and legislative boundaries in a way to favor one party and eliminate competitive races, has been another effective tool in the fight against the popular vote.

Rigging State School Board elections, to allow a committee of special interests to determine who gets on the ballot, has been another.

These ploys have resulted in popular incumbents not even being allowed to appear on the general election ballot because they were eliminated by special interests in the nominating committee.

Now, a group of prominent Republicans, led by former Gov. Mike Leavitt, has seen enough and is pushing for a ballot initiative in 2014 to change the current system. The boldest aspect of the plan would be to allow a candidate to get on the ballot without going through the delegate nominating process. A certain number of signatures on a petition would suffice.

Had that threshold been in place in 2010, former Sen. Bob Bennett likely would have been re-elected. Though he had a decent approval rating in the polls, he was eliminated at the State Republican Convention by delegates of the tea-party type, so the general populace had no chance to vote for him.

State Party Chairman Thomas Wright has tried to head off the petition drive by urging the party to approve more moderate changes to the nominating process. They include raising the nomination threshold at convention to 70 percent of the delegate vote, and allowing the party faithful to vote for delegates at their caucuses through absentee or early voting.

But even those moderate changes are meeting with stiff resistance from those who have benefited from the current system of allowing the passionate few to elect delegates to a convention that favors single-issue extremists.

Those who want to get rid of this stacked deck watched in 2004 when former Gov. Olene Walker, who had an 84 percent public approval rating, was eliminated at the state convention. The eventual winner, Jon Huntsman Jr., was caught in his own dilemma because of Utah's quirky system.

The single issue at the convention that year, promoted by special interests who stacked the neighborhood caucuses, was state-funded vouchers for parents of children in private school. Walker was eliminated because she was an unapologetic supporter of public education, and the majority of Utahns agreed with her. The Republican delegates? Not so much.

Huntsman was no voucher enthusiast. Other issues were far more important to him. But during the meet-the-candidate meetings with delegates leading up to the convention, he was repeatedly asked about his position on the issue. He knew that in order to lock up the nomination he would have to back vouchers.

After he became governor, Huntsman kept his promise to the delegates and signed the voucher bill into law. The bill had been passed by a Legislature containing a number of new pro-voucher legislators who had been chosen at the party convention by like-minded delegates elected at the pro-voucher caucuses.

But when voucher opponents got a referendum on the ballot to repeal the law, Huntsman angered the pro-voucher folks by not using his bully pulpit to vigorously promote their cause.

The referendum succeeded, proving that the delegates did not in the least represent the wishes of the majority, not just of Utahns in general but of Republicans as well.

It's that undemocratic caucus-convention quagmire that many in the Legislature want to preserve.




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