Could Utah GOP reform plight fuel initiative effort?
Politics • Push would let hopefuls sidestep convention process, still get on the ballot.
Published: March 27, 2013 01:25PM
Updated: March 27, 2013 11:09PM

As the Republican Party grapples with how — or whether — to reform its system for nominating candidates, an organizer of a push to change the system says the party’s failure to act makes it likely there will be a ballot initiative to change the nominating process.

“I have very little faith that there’s anything meaningful that the delegates will be doing” to reform the system, said Jeremy Roberts, who is working on a potential ballot initiative to give candidates a way to get on the general election ballot without going through the party’s convention process.

But Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright said the party is still open to change — it just has to work through the details and it’s too soon to judge.

“I still am optimistic about it,” said Wright.

And others considering a ballot initiative are waiting to see what the party comes up with.

“If changes are made by the parties then I’m not sure the group would go ahead,” said Dave Hansen, a former state GOP chairman and campaign manager for Sen. Orrin Hatch, who is working with former Gov. Mike Leavitt and others on a possible initiative drive.

Currently, parties in Utah hold neighborhood caucuses to elect delegates to nominate candidates at the party convention. If a candidate gets more than 60 percent of the delegate vote at the convention, he or she is automatically the party’s nominee.

Critics, like Roberts, Hansen and others, contend that the current system that both Democrats and Republicans use to choose their nominees vests too much power in the hands of a relatively small number of state delegates elected at the neighborhood caucuses.

Because Utah is overwhelmingly Republican, a couple thousand delegates can pick a nominee and decide statewide races.

To head off the ballot initiative, Wright encouraged the party to be “athletic and agile” and asked the party’s State Central Committee to consider a series of potential changes that might satisfy the critics.

But last Saturday, the central committee, which sets policy for the party, rejected many of the most sweeping proposals to change the system, agreeing to some of the more technical reforms.

Wright said that delegates were uncomfortable supporting some changes if they didn’t understand some of the specifics. They did support requiring candidates to get two-thirds of the vote from delegates to win the party’s nomination at convention — raising it from the current level of 60 percent — but opposed going any higher.

“I was hoping that there would be more of an approach to be athletic and agile and make changes,” he said, but it would be wrong to assume that central committee members closed the door to future discussions.

Wright said his top objectives are trying to expand the caucuses so people who have conflicts with the standard Tuesday night meetings might be able to participate some other way, and trying to make more voters feel like they have a say in the party’s nominees.

“Those are the two challenges we’re faced with, I think, to have any impact on the ballot initiative,” Wright said.

But Roberts said the Central Committee proved it will fight any reforms.

“There will be no meaningful change at all,” he said. “In fact the message that was sent [Saturday] was essentially: We’re more informed than anybody else and because of that we should be the ones making the decisions.”

Roberts said he expects supporters of a ballot initiative to change the state’s nominating system — which they say will make the process more inclusive — will begin gathering signatures next month.

The alternate proposal would allow a candidate to gather signatures from a percentage of registered voters — 2 percent has been suggested — in the jurisdiction. If enough are gathered, the candidate can appear on the primary ballot without going through the delegate process.

Hansen said the Leavitt group and Roberts ultimately would work together if it goes forward, but it may be premature to dive into the initiative.

“To be honest with you the group has not made a decision,” said Hansen. “They’re just looking at some options out there and what the parties are doing. … If changes are made by the parties then I’m not sure the group would go ahead.”

Hansen said he viewed Saturday’s Republican meeting as “information-gathering,” and believes discussions next month and at the Republican state convention in May are more critical.

“This isn’t the caucus system or no caucus system. This is: Can we make improvements to make the system better? Can we make it so more people have a chance to participate in the caucus system?” Hansen said. “Right now, what we’re seeing is there are too many voters in the state of Utah who feel they don’t have an opportunity to participate in the process.”

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 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.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke