Robert Gehrke: Here’s how we fix Utah’s broken, unrepresentative primary election system

People4Utah will soon launch a 2024 ballot measure effort to adopt a system of having one primary ballot, where all voters pick from all candidates in the same primary.

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

Chances are you’ve heard something about the kerfuffle over whether Celeste Maloy — Republican delegates’ pick to replace retiring Rep. Chris Stewart — is even eligible to be a GOP congressional nominee.

Nothing I’ve seen appears to be disqualifying under the GOP’s bylaws or state law: State law says those who relocate to work for the state or federal government don’t lose their residency; there is no indication she ever voted in Washington, D.C.; her party registration may have been inactive, but the party rules don’t require the registration to be active and she hadn’t been dropped from voter rolls.

Maybe we need to change the law or the GOP should change their rules. Or both.

But, frankly, there is something much more fundamental that needs to change: We need to stop letting political parties be gatekeepers deciding who will automatically get a spot on the primary ballot and who will not.

First and foremost, it’s not their ballot. The election doesn’t belong to the Republican Party or the Democratic Party or the United Utah Party, for that matter. You and I are the ones paying for it, with this 2nd Congressional District special election costing us $2.5 million.

If it’s our money and our election, we should decide who gets on our ballot.

Think about it: These political parties tell us over and over they are private organizations and get to decide how they run their business.

There’s not a single other private organization in the state that gets millions in taxpayer money to manage political party registration lists and to run primary elections — and then excluded half of Utah voters from participating.

What’s more, in about four out of five elections in this state, Republican primaries or conventions decide who will represent all of the constituents — including those who aren’t allowed to participate.

Republicans should open their primaries to any eligible voter, or we need to end their free ride.

The problem is the lawmakers who we would need to change the system won’t, because both they and the delegates they answer to, directly benefit from the way things are now.

There is another way, though, and we can change it ourselves.

The organization People4Utah will soon launch a 2024 ballot measure effort to adopt a system of having one primary ballot, with all of the candidates listed, letting everyone vote and the top two finishers — regardless of party — advance to a head-to-head general election.

“Representative democracy is healthiest when the representatives are chosen by their entire constituency. That is just the most basic of premises that isn’t currently being adhered to,” Tami Fillmore, executive director of People4Utah told me.

“That’s the core, foundational issue as to why things are broken and feel broken to so many,” she said. “Elected representatives respond to those who elect them and if their entire constituency isn’t electing them, then they’re responding to the small fraction [of people].”

Nebraska, Washington, and California already use the same system. Louisiana’s is similar. In Alaska, the top four in the primary advance to the general, and voters use ranked-choice voting in the general to pick the winner.

If Utah voters approve the proposal, parties would still matter. They could function like the private organizations they are (or are supposed to be) and hold conventions and choose the candidate they want to endorse and put their money and organization behind getting that person elected.

The only difference is that every constituent would get to help decide who their representatives would be. It puts power in the hands of ALL of the people in the state, instead of handing it over to partisan insiders.

Now, whenever I argue that the current convention system puts too much power in the hands of a small group of extreme delegates who don’t reflect mainstream Utah, the counterargument is always the same — delegates are more invested, they do their homework, they care and vet the candidates.

But it appears they did a pretty lousy job of vetting Celeste Maloy, not even asking her who she voted for — or if she voted — in the 2020 and 2022 elections. If they had, maybe all of these eligibility questions would have been resolved.

Moreover, the Republican delegates have a pretty lousy track record of picking nominees who reflect the preference of Republican voters. They backed former state Rep. Chris Herrod over John Curtis in the 3rd District special election; they chose Jonathan Johnson over Gov. Gary Herbert; they sided with state Sen. Mike Kennedy over Mitt Romney.

Each time, primary voters went the opposite direction by substantial margins. And maybe those are signs that the system, at least since signature-gathering became part of the process, has somewhat worked.

But it can be a lot better.

Cynics reading this and knowing the history with the 2018 voter initiatives will be understandably skeptical that the Legislature won’t just ignore the will of the people and change the law back.

They might. But those 2018 voter initiatives still got us a lot — a medical marijuana program, Medicaid expansion and a redistricting commission that we would never have had if the Legislature had its way.

If we can pass this initiative, I believe we could end up with something every bit as important. We’ll see more people running, more voters engaged in the process, candidates elected who truly represent the constituents they serve, and an all-around healthier, more vibrant democracy where we all have a voice.