Time to ditch the Utah political convention circus. Robert Gehrke explains why.

Utah’s caucus-convention doesn’t lead to a candidate who represents you, the voter.

" …. in the name of Jesus Christ, amen. Let’s go, Brandon!”

No joke. That’s how the Republican state convention got underway Saturday and it didn’t really get much better from there.

We had convicted seven-time felon, Nixon hatchet man and noted swinger Roger Stone vamping for congressional candidate Jason Preston and offering a plug to Mike Lee as a pillar of the party of family values.

Visitors to Tim Aalders’ booth could snap a pic with former Sheriff Richard Mack, a key figure in the Bundy standoff, founder of an anti-government group and board member of the far-right Oath Keepers group.

And at every turn, there were tirades against transgender girls competing in sports, critical race theory, election fraud, the horrors inflicted by the Biden administration, liberal pedophiles preying on children and the latest cause du jour — the “inclusion of Environmental, Social, and Governance” indicators in state credit ratings.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

When Senate candidate Becky Edwards said that Lee was ineffective in representing Utah, she was met with boos and jeers of “RINO!” and “Sit down, Karen!”

Gov. Spencer Cox and Sen. Mitt Romney conveniently did not attend, having commitments they just couldn’t break, and were likewise booed when their absence was noted.

“A gathering like this one is one of the greatest forces for good that’s ever existed,” Lee shouted into the microphone to hoots and cheers.

Is it? Is it really?

Or can we finally agree that these conventions are a sideshow, a platform for the most corrosive, extremist voices in our post-apocalyptic political landscape?

It’s time for them to lose their outsized influence, or else go away altogether.

They’re insular and exclusionary to ordinary working Utahns who have jobs or kids soccer games or swim meets and can’t attend a Tuesday caucus and an all-day Saturday convention. It’s a cliquish gathering of super-fans, a Comic Con for political nerds who have been whipped into a frenzy by the latest outrage to go viral on social media.

They diminish the voice of women — not just with shouts of “Sit down, Karen!” — but because data shows women are consistently underrepresented among the delegate pool. In 2016, the non-partisan Utah Foundation reported that less than a quarter of delegates to the Republican convention were female, even though they make up 56% of GOP voters.

And by now it is well-established that the caucus-convention system puts forward candidates who do not represent average Utahns, or even the mainstream of the party for that matter.

On Saturday, the delegates sided with former state Rep. Chris Herrod over incumbent U.S. Rep. John Curtis, 55-45. Curtis did not gather signatures to get on the primary ballot — an egregious act of political malpractice — but got enough support to survive.

He will trounce Herrod in the primary, like he has before.

The first time they squared off in a special election in 2017, Curtis finished a distant fifth at convention, Herrod finished first, but Curtis easily beat him in a three-way race late that summer.

It’s a pattern, where the convention delegates pick the extremist candidate and regular Republican voters pick someone completely different.

In 2016, for example, delegates chose tech businessman Jonathan Johnson over incumbent Gov. Gary Herbert, but Herbert won the primary with 72% of the vote.

In 2018, delegates picked Mike Kennedy over Mitt Romney, but Romney won the primary with 71% of the vote.

Disparities like that are shocking and show a fundamental disconnect between the delegates and mainstream Republican voters.

The power that the delegates once held was diminished after the Count My Vote initiative forced lawmakers to adopt a signature-gathering path to the primary ballot.

But when it was crafted, the assumption was that unaffiliated voters — 29% of all voters statewide — would be able to sign petitions for any party. A court struck that down meaning we end up with onerous signature requirements, roughly 28,000 in statewide races, 7,000 for congressional seats.

The idea behind signatures, said Count My Vote chairman Rich McKeown, was just to show that candidates had some meaningful measure of support.

“I think we have created an unreasonable threshold for most of the races,” McKeown said. “Twenty-eight thousand for a statewide office is simply just too many.”

In 2017, CMV pushed to cut the thresholds in half, but their initiative failed to make it to the ballot after opponents were able to knock off signatures in a few rural counties.

Adjusting those signature requirements and adding ranked-choice voting to the mix would ease the path to the ballot, make partisan conventions mostly meaningless, return control of the process to the voters and help reach a more representative process.

It’s something legislators could do next session. But if lawmakers are too afraid of the delegate backlash to do what’s right for constituents, then hopefully Count My Vote will put it before voters in 2024.

Simply put, voters deserve better than to be at the mercy of a convention system that caters to the worst impulses of politics and does a disservice to our democratic representation.

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