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Peg McEntee: Casting my vote against Utah's caucus system

Published April 30, 2013 8:06 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ever since Utah gained statehood in 1896, Republican and Democratic voters have made their way to neighborhood caucuses and county and state conventions to nominate candidates for political office.

Now, though, a new political group and the state Democratic Party are considering how — and whether — to wrest control from the relatively small number of people who routinely attend caucuses and county and state conventions and expand the candidate roster and participation.

It's about time.

In 2012, even with Mitt Romney topping the GOP ticket, just 57 percent of eligible Utahns bothered to cast ballots. Who knows how many won't turn out in 2014, a much lower-stakes contest, with the possible exception of a Jim Matheson-Mia Love rematch.

I've always thought that, given the epic majority of GOP candidates and voters here, a lot of people figured the right people would be elected no matter what. On the other hand, Democrats have so little presence in federal and state offices that it's probably tough to muster the will to vote knowing their chances are so slim.

This month, a group called Count My Vote, which includes the likes of former Gov. Mike Leavitt and University of Utah political science professor Kirk Jowers, tried to persuade the Republican State Central Committee to make a few concessions.

One would have required candidates to get 70 percent of the vote at the state convention instead of the current 60 percent to lock up the party's nomination. If a candidate didn't, she or he would have to face a primary election to see who prevails.

It was a no-go all the way. "Don't be blackmailed," said one committee member.

So Count My Vote will go for an initiative on the 2014 ballot if it can get the 100,000 signatures it needs to change the way both parties choose their candidates.

That has Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis seething. At the party's Organizing Convention in June, he says, "we will decide."

Dabakis contends the Count My Vote initiative would force Democrats to conduct business — and spend a lot of money — the same way Republicans would.

"I said, 'The hell with you.' We have no interest in doing what the GOP wants to be done," he said Monday.

Instead, conventiongoers will have two choices: Preserve the caucus system or move to a direct primary to select their candidates. Even better, Dabakis promises a "Lincoln-Douglas" debate on the matter. (One would hope it wouldn't take the several days it did in 1858.)

The Democratic Party Executive Committee is not taking a position on the arguments.

I remember how, in 2010, GOP convention delegates dumped three-term Sen. Bob Bennett and all Utahns eventually got Sen. Mike Lee, who has turned into a brilliant obstructionist in Washington, D.C.

This state needs and deserves far more diverse representation than it has now, from Congress to our own Capitol Hill. Let's be bold. Open the floodgates and see what happens.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @Peg McEntee.