Utah's Republicans and Democrats should change the current system for nominating candidates, and minor tweaks won't do the job.
A group of public-spirited Utah political leaders that includes former Gov. Mike Leavitt and Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, is promoting a petition drive that could force the issue. They rightly say the current system allows a small minority party convention delegates to choose candidates.
The result is that popular, moderate, competent candidates such as former Sen. Bob Bennett and former Gov. Olene Walker, lose and few people turn out to vote. Even moderate Rep. Jim Matheson was forced into a primary for the Democratic nomination last year. A primary open to any candidate who collects a certain number of signatures on a petition is the way to go.
State Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright warns his GOP colleagues, correctly, that some major changes are needed. The petition drive should be the catalyst that makes it happen.
The current method for selecting candidates for state and federal November ballots by both Republicans and Democrats is undemocratic and exclusive, giving too much power to a very small portion of the populace, predictably those with extreme ideological agendas, either right or left.
Ordinary Utahns get the feeling they can't make a difference in selecting candidates, nor at the ballot box.
The dominant Republican Party is ruled in large part by ideologically extreme convention delegates, so its candidates often are, or pretend to be, far to the right of Utah's conservative mainstream. The situation was so bad in the 2012 election cycle that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints openly encouraged a wider participation, canceling church-related activities that might conflict with either party's caucus night.
The petition sponsors want to make true primary elections part of the process. Their idea is to allow each party to have its caucuses and its conventions, with that small group of activists still naming the candidate they would prefer to carry their party's standard.
But the new system would also allow any candidate who could gather sufficient signatures on a petition to gain a slot on a primary election ballot, squaring off against the convention's choice in an election open to all voters who are registered as affiliated with that party.
It's an idea that could lead to higher voter turnout and more moderate candidates. And that would be all to the good.
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