by James Devereaux, Contributor
In a state that is largely dominated by a single party, with a majority of the state voting in the Republican column, primary elections carry more significance than the general elections. With only one of the four congressional districts being held by a Democrat, Jim Matheson, and the two U.S. Senate seats belonging to the Republicans there is little variation in the political makeup of the congressional seats. Only the seat held by the Democrat was close enough for the general election to matter.
With primary elections being so much more important than general elections, the primary elections process comes under closer scrutiny. Currently, the hot topic in Utah elections is primary candidates being chosen by delegates rather than direct elections and a push for direct primary elections is gaining momentum. Under the current system a primary is only held if no single candidate garners 60% of the delegates, making the convention a type of pre-primary process. Uniquely, the political parties are allowed to deny voters a primary election once one candidate has met the threshold of 60% of delegates, whereas other states using the convention method allow primaries for qualifying candidates.
Count My Vote, an organization dedicated to changing the process for the primary elections in Utah, has filed an initiative application with the lieutenant governor. The organization claims the current system leads to low voter turnout, being “antiquated, exclusionary and unfair.” It also claims the current caucus system excludes particular groups, such as female and minority voters, based on a comparison of the demographics of the delegates to the population of voters, finding that a majority of the delegates are older white males. Count My Vote’s initiative claims a switch to a direct primary will expand voter participation, which means these proposed changes stand a good chance constitutionally, according to local attorneys. The proposed changes are likely constitutional; most state administered nomination processes currently being used across the country follow this model. The proposed changes to ‘modernize’ the current process will make it exactly like the primary elections found in other states, which gives this movement a lot of leeway and validity legally as well politically.
State law gives broad authority to the parties in organizing and executing the primary election process. Count My Vote is focusing on changing the current delegate system by collecting signatures to put the issue on the ballot in time for the November 2014 election cycle. Count My Vote seeks to change the law primarily by requiring that parties submit candidates after receiving signatures of two percent of the registered party members in the relevant area and not having the party convention process.
This effort would rid the state of the convention system and move to a direct primary election, eliminating the delegates altogether. Both parties’ primaries, though not identical procedurally, rely on this convention style process and would both be required to move toward the primary election by direct vote. Both the GOP and Democratic state party chairs have voiced their desire to maintain the current system as closely as possible, but Count My Vote is pushing for open elections, at least for the registered members of the parties. This campaign is an effort in making the most valuable election, the primaries, as close to a general election as possible.
The brewing storm in Utah over primary elections will eventually break. The state’s GOP chair is currently evaluating his options for reforming the process while still preserving the delegate system. The state’s GOP chair also believes that the momentum that Count My Vote has gained will steamroll the convention style election if the parties do not make some concessions. Popular options include permitting more candidates to move to a general primary, lowering the number of delegates required, or removing the ability of the party to keep party members from holding a primary election. Many states that have stuck with the convention system have used it to whittle down the field before the actual primaries instead of as a near-exclusive method of picking candidates. Regardless of the success of Count My Vote’s initiative, the organization is having an impact on Utah’s political process. This conflict ultimately may boil down to a competition between the will of the parties to run their elections as they deem best and what voters want.