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George Pyle: Imaginary friends

Published May 14, 2011 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Last summer, my two sons and I were driving from Buffalo to Cleveland to take in a baseball game and check out the cool collection of suits of armor at the art museum. Controversy ensued.

The 10-year-old demanded that the radio be set to the top 40 station. The 19-year-old and I preferred the more eclectic selections of Jack FM. I told Younger Son that he had been outvoted. He begged to differ.

"My two imaginary friends want to listen to my station," he said. "So it's 3-2 for me."

Older Son and I retorted that our imaginary friends were voting with us, which put us back in the majority. Younger Son was having none of it.

"Grown-ups don't have imaginary friends," he deadpanned. I had no answer for that. So I declared martial law and switched to the 24-hour sports station.

(Then there was the time, many years ago, that my younger brother and his friends showed up at a meeting of what little was left of the University of Kansas Chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society, outnumbered the regulars, voted themselves in as officers and changed the name of the group to the Aardvark Liberation Front. Complete with T-shirts. I'm sensing a genetic trait here.)

It all relates to the way Utah runs its elections, with the outcome determined not so much on issues or real popularity, but on how you skew the electorate. Right now, the vast majority of state and federal elective offices in Utah are chosen by the imaginary friends of a small number of right-wing Republican Party activists.

The few who show up for the various caucuses and conventions that choose the party's nominees claim to be representing their friends, neighbors and fellow citizens. But most folks don't even know the process is happening until they read in The Tribune that the long-time senator, or first woman governor, that most of them were quite satisfied with had been eliminated in a process that they had no say in.

Most other states use a much more representative process called a primary election. Everybody who wants to run for office under a party's banner signs up, either by filing a petition signed by a lot of folks or by paying a fee. In states that allow either option, it is usually a point of pride that candidates go the petition route rather than "buying" themselves a spot on the ballot.

A few months before the general election, the primary is held, in the same manner and at the same polling stations as a regular election. Some states have "closed" primaries, meaning that only those already affiliated with a party on the voter rolls can vote in that party's primary. Others allow voters to just show up and pick a ballot.

Primaries can be hectic. It's not uncommon, especially when there's no incumbent in the race, for there to be eight or more serious and semi-serious candidates in a party's field.

Debates can look like theater casting calls and the winner can be the one with a mere 30 percent of the vote.

But it works. The system I have the most experience with is the one in Kansas, a state where, like Utah, the Republican nomination is a huge leg up to victory in November, but where the primary system favors candidates of a moderate, business-like mien over those with a more ideological temperament. Examples of those produced by the system include very models of wise, level-headed governance, such as Gov. Bill Graves and U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum.

The argument of those who favor Utah's existing system, the stunning claim that the system better represents "the people," is more brazen than my son's claim that his phantoms get to vote and mine don't.

Though, if nothing changes, the lad's got a future ahead of him in Utah politics.

Email George Pyle at gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @debatestate