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Utah’s way of picking candidates robs voters

The following op/ed–by Kirk Jowers, director of the Hickley Institute at the University of Utah–appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday, June 22, the day of the Utah primary election. Though the election is now history, the ideas proposed in the op/ed remain relevant and current. We welcome civil discussion of the issue.  And, you can learn more about the U’s Hinckley Institute of Politics’ offerings, projects and programs by clicking here:

In 1965, Robert H. Hinckley started the Hinckley Institute of Politics with one directive, “Participate.” Today’s primary election will finally give Utahns that opportunity and complete Utah’s distinctive party nomination process. The caucus-and-convention portion demonstrates the best and worst of our state.

On one hand, our convention delegates are among the nation’s most engaged citizens. Many spend countless hours analyzing candidate positions and attending issue forums before casting their votes. On the other hand, our delegates constitute less than two-tenths of 1 percent of Utah’s population and our system is a 1900s anachronism that has not evolved since the days of party bosses.

Moreover, data overwhelmingly demonstrate that the delegates do not represent the parties’ respective voters and views. The system disenfranchises large swaths of our population and the process strangles Utah’s representative republic. We can — and must — do better.

Critics of this system frequently complain that the status quo forces the two major parties to be subservient to their extreme bases while ignoring their moderates. This complaint is merited—radicals are vastly overrepresented—but too narrow.

Perhaps more disturbing are the handful of interest groups that manipulate and dominate the process before the broader electorate is afforded an opportunity to weigh in. These interests have cleverly surmised that it is far easier and cheaper to influence (or even select) a small, insular group than to engage the entire state. A few prominent forces on both the Democratic and Republican sides can now hijack the election and disenfranchise the vast majority of Utahns.

The Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Utah’s Democracy, which I chaired, worked diligently to determine why Utah once led the nation in voter participation, but now regularly falls at the bottom. The commission recommended important reforms, several of which already have been enacted in full or in part. After countless hours of work, research and listening, however, I have concluded that the 800-pound gorilla of our democratic malaise is the caucus-and-convention system.

If you were a state delegate, you received hundreds of candidate and/or organization mailings, phone calls, gifts or invitations to meals and events leading up to the state convention.

The rest of us were never engaged — 99.8 percent of the population was irrelevant during the most determinative elections. We never got to evaluate, much less vote on, qualified candidates at all levels because Utah erects the country’s highest barrier to primary candidacy (e.g., Utah is the only state that would not have allowed Gov. Olene Walker or U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett to appear on the ballot).

The cost to Utah of being such an outlier is not only that it increases citizen apathy and depresses civic and candidate participation, but also that it enables special interests to fill this vacuum and prevail over the public good.

I support three simple reforms that allow us to keep the convention and benefit from our hardworking delegates while re-engaging and empowering Utahns. Utah’s parties must (1) make primary elections more common and accessible by lowering the convention’s current 40 percent vote threshold to 20 percent; (2) devote more resources to outreach and get exponentially more people involved in our caucus meetings; and (3) make the rules of the system less confusing and more consistently and transparently applied.

Utahns deserve a political process open to everyone and a government that works for the benefit of all.

Our state’s future requires a system that permits us to again lead the country in voter turnout and inspires us to serve our community, state and country.

Please call and e-mail your state and party representatives to demand a more representative and participatory system.