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Sandy • Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright says the state's current caucus-convention nominating system is headed for an giant iceberg: a petition drive that could allow candidates to ignore it and appear on primary election ballots simply by collecting enough signatures.
So he asked the party's state central committee Saturday to make changes to overcome criticism that the current system excludes too many people. While delegates supported the idea of change, they then opposed most major changes discussed in an all-afternoon meeting.
That included giving an initial thumbs down to such proposals as allowing people to vote in GOP caucuses and primaries without first registering as a Republican; allowing people to watch caucuses online and vote remotely online or by mail; and several proposals to make it tougher for a convention winner to avoid a primary.
But Wright is optimistic the committee can develop changes by its next April 23 meeting to short-circuit the petition drive saying delegates were hesitant to show much support Saturday as they heard only hypothetical, broad proposals.
"I think when the proposals are more specific and people see how they will affect the system, and how they will not affect it, they will be more willing to go for it," he said. "This party wants to move forward and be more inclusive," and convince supporters of the petition drive that it is not needed.
Utah's current nominating system is unique among states. Neighborhood caucuses elect delegates to county and state conventions. If candidates receive 60 percent of convention delegate votes, they skip the primary and advance to the general election. It saves nominees from spending money against in-party challengers, and focuses resources on the opposing party.
But leaders such as former Gov. Mike Leavitt and Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, say the system allows a small minority to choose winners, depressing voter turnout. Right-wing GOP delegates in recent years dumped Sen. Bob Bennett and Gov. Olene Walker despite high voter approval, and liberal Democrats forced moderate Rep. Jim Matheson into a primary.
Leavitt and Jowers have supported change to allow candidates to qualify by collecting signatures and have raised money to push that.
Wright warned that if that petition drive is successful, it could turn conventions into merely a place where the party could endorse candidates but not choose final nominees.
"We all love the current caucus-convention system," Wright told delegates, saying that among other benefits is that it allows candidates to run without a lot of money by contacting a small number of delegates.
Former U.S. Senate candidate Cherliyn Eagar said moving away from the caucus-convention system "is really the big party bosses and lobbyists of Washington, D.C., trying to impose their will on the state … because they want to elect incumbents forever. That's how they buy the vote."
Delegates on Saturday voted on a series of questions about changes Wright said could defuse criticism of the current system and lead the organizers of the petition drive to drop it.
But they voted against major changes, such as allowing unaffiliated voters or even Democrats to join in GOP caucuses and primary elections.
Several proposals were floated to raise the threshold where candidates can become automatic nominees at conventions, but candidates opposed raising it to 70 or 80 percent. A majority did favor raising it to 67 percent, to make it a little tougher for a convention to nominate someone.
Stan Lockhart, former state GOP chairman and husband of House Speaker Becky Lockhart, noted the threshold used to be 70 percent, "and we never had the hue and cry then that we have now," so he said, "Let's do something to show we are more open."
The only proposals generally supported at Saturday's meeting would speed up caucus meetings which sometimes drag on from 7 p.m. until after midnight. Speeding meetings could allow more to participate.
Such proposals included allowing people to check in early online to avoid long lines, allowing candidates for delegates and other offices to pre-file on caucus websites, and allow voting by electronic device to speed tallies.