By a 2-to-1 margin, Utah voters are opposed to returning to old election laws that made the caucus-convention system the sole method to select party nominees — which in many races prevented primary elections, like the one being held Tuesday.
They prefer the new system that also allows candidates to qualify for the ballot by gathering signatures. That may give voters more choice and more ability to disagree with party delegates who historically chose nominees from the political fringes.
“Utahns like the dual path” to the ballot, “and dislike anything that limits their choices,” said Rich McKeown, executive co-chairman of Count My Vote, a group of mostly moderate Republicans that seeks to cement that new system into law to protect it against ongoing challenges by the Utah Republican Party.
But critics, mostly conservative Republicans, say the big margins merely reflect the uninformed opinions of voters, which would change with more information.
A new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll asked registered voters, “Do you support or oppose political party conventions as the sole method to select candidates for office?”
It found that 56 percent strongly or somewhat opposed it, 31 percent supported it and 12 percent were undecided.
Even a plurality of Republicans — 46 percent to 42 percent — opposed returning to the old system, even though their party is continuing lawsuits seeking to do exactly that.
And it comes shortly after a group of conservative Republicans torpedoed an initiative by Count My Vote. They did so by convincing just enough petitioners to remove signatures after the referendum initially appeared to qualify for the Nov. 6 general election. It had collected 131,000 signatures statewide, and is suing to regain ballot access by arguing state requirements are unconstitutionally difficult.
“The numbers in this poll are similar to what we’ve seen in the past,” McKeown said. He said polls for years have shown 60 to 80 percent support for a dual system to the ballot or a direct primary “depending on how the question is worded.”
His group contends the right wing of the GOP packs lightly attended caucuses to elect delegates who are much more right-wing than mainstream voters (and Utah’s Democratic delegates also tend to be more liberal).
And in the old system, if candidates won more than 60 percent of the vote at convention, they could skip the primary election among all party voters.
A dual system may offer more choices, and McKeown says polls show that Utah voters have noticed and appreciate the difference that has made.
For example, in a special election last year, GOP delegates chose ultraconservative Chris Herrod as their nominee in the 3rd Congressional District — and under old rules he would have skipped directly to the general election and likely won it in the heavily Republican district.
But more moderate John Curtis — rejected by delegates — had also collected signatures to qualify for the ballot, and he easily defeated Herrod in the primary and was elected to Congress.
Herrod managed to force Curtis into a primary again at this year’s convention, but polls show Curtis is expected to win easily during Tuesday’s primary.
McKeown also points to conservative state Rep. Mike Kennedy, who beat former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney by a 51-49 percent margin in this year’s GOP convention in Utah’s U.S. Senate race, but Romney is expected to win easily Tuesday.
“Count My Vote has always been about voter participation. Closed systems [such as the caucus-convention system] diminish voter turnout,” McKeown said.
Brandon Beckham, director of Keep My Voice, which has opposed the signature gathering championed by Count My Vote and helped sink its initiative, said the poll shows support for a dual system only because “most voters are not informed on the issue. However, when educated about the merits of the caucus system,” they support it.
He also argues that “unaffiliated voters should not be polled in this because they don’t have a party,” and only parties should choose nominees — even though all voters make final decisions. About 38 percent of all Utah voters are unaffiliated.
Beckham also said people should not be surprised that convention-goers often support someone different than primary voters, and it is actually a good thing.
“In a primary, money is everything. It’s about name recognition and talking points,” he said.
“This is why you are going to get different results in the caucus system. It’s not meant to represent the average voter,” he said. “It’s meant to be a representative system.” The elected delegates “find out more information. They put in more time and research.”
Conventions “are never going to be a rubber stamp of what public opinion is,” because of more research and one-on-one campaigning with delegates, he said.
The new poll of 654 registered voters statewide was conducted June 11-18 by the Hinckley Institute. It has a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points.