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Group defends Utah's caucus-convention system

Published November 9, 2013 5:01 pm

Initiative • Protect Our Neighborhood Elections says direct primaries favor the rich.
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A group that wants to retain Utah's caucus-convention system said Thursday that this method of picking party nominees gives anyone a chance to participate in politics, not just the rich and famous.

At a news conference held on the steps of the state Capitol by Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, Bountiful resident Kris Kimball said under an open primary system, she would be unable to afford the thousands of dollars needed to get on the general-election ballot. But in 2010, she was able to make a bid for the District 19 House seat.

"Our caucus system gave me the opportunity to run for office," said Kimball, who was defeated at the convention.

Kimball, co-chairwoman of Protect our Neighborhood Elections, was one of a half dozen speakers who opposed an initiative by Count My Vote that would replace party caucuses and conventions with direct primaries. Under the current system, delegates who are selected at neighborhood caucuses pick the candidates who go on the ballot.

The Count My Vote group says that system allows small groups, such as tea partyers, to pack neighborhood caucuses and move politics to more extreme positions and candidates than mainstream voters.

But caucus supporters say the dual-track system allows candidates without much money to get on the ballot by campaigning directly for the support of delegates. Both the Republican and Democratic parties in Utah endorse the current system as grass-roots politics.

The debate is one that is raging nationally, especially within the Republican Party.

2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney in recent days weighed in on the side of open primaries as a way to avoid small groups hijacking the party. The friction has intensified in the wake of the defeat Tuesday of Republican gubernatorial candidate Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II in Virginia in a close race. Cuccinelli, who is conservative, won the GOP nomination against a more moderate candidate after Virginia's Republican Party switched its nominating process from a primary to a convention last year.

Utah has become a poster boy for both convention opponents and supporters because of the high-profile defeat in 2010 of three-term Sen. Bob Bennett by tea-party backed Mike Lee, who at the time was a relative unknown in political circles.

The argument in the Beehive State, though, isn't confined to the dominant Republican Party. James Gonzales of Salt Lake City, who has been active in Democratic politics, contends that caucuses enfranchise voters, while the primary system delivers votes to the highest bidder.

And Paul Gooch, a GOP delegatefrom St. George, said the caucus system disperses political power throughout the state and gives him a voice in politics equal to a delegate from Salt Lake City.

Gooch said delegates develop friendships with candidates while vetting their stands on the issues. Those relationships continue after the election, when the delegates can personally "hold their [elected officials] feet to the fire."

"I've had direct access to politicians," Gooch said, adding that his neighbors also have access to their leaders through him. "I did not have to pay for that political access."

The Count My Vote group needs to collect 102,000 signatures from 26 of Utah's 29 Senate districts by April 15 to get its proposal on the 2014 ballot.

pmanson@sltrib.com

Twitter: @PamelaMansonSLC