A group of Utahns plans to launch an initiative drive Monday aimed at changing how political candidates get on the ballot, opening Utah's primary process and undermining the parties' existing caucus system.
If successful, a candidate could appear on the primary ballot if he or she wins the party's nomination at convention or gathers enough signatures to qualify for the slot. The primary winner would be the party's nominee and appear on the ballot in November.
Utah's caucus and convention system unique in the United States is exclusionary and vests too much power in the hands of a small number of delegates, supporters of the initiative contend.
"Essentially, there are two main objectives across the board with this group: One is we want to increase voter participation and [second] involve more people in who is on the ballot. Those are the most important things," said Jeremy Roberts, one of the organizers of the effort and the former Utah County Republican Party secretary.
But the process for changing the system is long and challenging. Supporters will have to gather 102,879 signatures from registered voters around the state to get on the 2014 ballot and win a majority of the vote in that election. If successful, it would take effect in the 2016 election.
In 2011, a group of prominent Utah politicos including former Gov. Mike Leavitt and political scientist Kirk Jowers had considered making a push to get an identical measure on the 2012 ballot, and raised more than $40,000 for the signature-gathering effort.
But they backed away, deciding they didn't have enough time to gather the required number of signatures to get on the 2012 ballot, promising to remain active and revisit the issue for 2014.
Roberts, who owns a marketing business, said there have been meetings with those high-profile politicians, and they have adopted the wording of the Leavitt proposal. He said they have also met with numerous other business, community and religious leaders, and they are all welcome to support and participate in the effort.
The proposal, modeled after Connecticut's system, would allow a party to put a candidate on the primary ballot if he or she wins at the party convention. Other candidates could qualify for the primary ballot if they gather signatures from 2 percent of those registered with the party in the jurisdiction they plan to run.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said the fight over nominating processes is really a civil war among Republicans.
"This mostly seems to be an internal power play within the Republican Party between their own factions and has nothing or very little to do with Democrats," he said. "This is the Mike Leavitt conservatives at war with the extremists in their own party. … It's the internal power brokers trying to keep power out of the hands of the tea party."
Roberts said turnout is a problem for both parties and the system presents obstacles for anyone to participate.
A 2011 report by the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan think-tank, said that Utah is one of just a few states that still uses a convention system and the only one that allows parties to preclude a primary election.
The Foundation said that delegates tend to be the most zealous members of both parties, which has a direct influence on public policy. Changing the system could boost voter turnout and moderate policy, the Foundation said.
In recent years, Republican delegates bounced Gov. Olene Walker and Sen. Bob Bennett, both of whom had high public approval, but were not conservative enough for the Republican delegates. Democratic delegates who believed Rep. Jim Matheson was not liberal enough also forced him into a primary in 2010.
"This is not an indictment against the delegate system. It's just that there should be alternatives," Roberts said. "The political parties are more than within their right to say, 'We're going to have our convention, we're going to have our delegates and we're going to pick our candidates and financially support them. That's their prerogative. But someone shouldn't be excluded from the primary ballot because they choose not to participate in that process."
In addition to Roberts, four other Utahns will sign the initiative paperwork they plan to file Monday. They are Amy Roberts, Carl Downing, Sean Hullinger and Chris Blake.
Amy Roberts is a former Salt Lake County Republican Party secretary who has worked on numerous campaigns. Downing is a Republican delegate who worked on Howard Wallack's congressional campaign and Gov. Gary Herbert's race. Hullinger is a defense attorney who was a libertarian candidate for Utah County attorney. Blake is a lifelong Democrat who says the current system makes it difficult for members of both parties to participate.