A bi-partisan group aimed at changing the way political parties in Utah select candidates that appear on election ballots kicked off a campaign last week.
The aim of Count my Vote is to replace party conventions with a direct primary election to finalize candidates for general elections.
The group has in its membership former Republican governors Mike Leavitt and Norm Bangerter, along with former Democratic Utah first-lady Norma Matheson, and current Democratic mayors Ben McAdams of Salt Lake County and Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City.
They and other supporters of the change need to collect over 102,000 signatures by April 15, 2014 to put their reform measure on the ballot for the November 2014 election. If it passes the change will take effect for the 2016 election.
Paperwork to start the petition drive has been submitted, but it appears the reform may face an uphill battle in Tooele County.
Local leaders of both parties support the current caucus and convention system of selecting party candidates.
For Chairman Erik Gumbrecht of the Tooele County Republican Party, caucuses and conventions are both the ideological and practical best way to select a candidate.
“When I was a delegate, I spent hours talking to candidates and doing research,” he said. “Most people don’t have that kind of time, that’s why in a representative form of government, you elect people to represent you. The delegates elected at the caucus meeting have the time to do the research and meet the candidates.”
The caucus system also forces candidates to get out and meet delegates and attend conventions. “The caucus system holds candidates accountable to neighborhoods,” said Gumbrecht.
In the caucus and convention system, voters meet in small precinct groups once every two years to discuss issues and candidates and elect delegates to county and state conventions. The delegates vote at the state and county conventions for candidates.
Candidates that receive 60 percent of the delegates go on to the general election representing their party. If no candidate gets 60 percent of the vote at the convention, the top two vote getters are advanced to a primary.
Count My Vote proposes that any candidate who can garner the signatures from 2 percent of the registered voters from a party that live within the boundaries of the office the candidate seeks, can place their name on that party’s ballot for a primary election.
But Gumbrecht believes the Count My Vote direct primary proposal is flawed because it allows candidates with money to bypass the caucus system.
He also fears that a long list of primary candidates may mean the winner that is advanced to the general election will have a small percentage of the overall primary vote.
The caucus and convention system produces better candidates, according to Gumbrecht.
“You don’t want a system that sends a candidate to the primary immediately,” he said. “The candidates visit Tooele to meet with delegates. With the caucus you have early accountability, face time, and the candidates are properly vetted regardless of their bank account.”
Gumbrecht supports a compromise that would leave the current caucus and convention system intact, but once candidates are sent to a primary, Gumbrecht’s proposal would allow unaffiliated voters to vote in the primary. Currently, only declared Republicans can vote in a Republican primary.
Toby Dillon, former Tooele County Democratic Party chairman and currently the county party’s secretary, also supports the current system of selecting candidates.
“The current system also encourages a meritocracy,” he said. “The best candidates, as determined by the party delegates, move forward. The Count My Vote initiative seeks to undermine that meritocracy by allowing weaker candidates on the ballot anyway.”
Dillon does not believe the Count My Vote proposal will increase public satisfaction with the political process in Utah.
Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne, who defeated an incumbent commissioner at the 2012 Tooele County Republican election, supports the current caucus convention system.
“I believe the individual parties have their prescribed methods for choosing candidates that will have the respective party’s endorsement,” he said. “That should continue to be left up to the individual parties.”
Milne, who used to live in California where primaries were used to select general election candidates, is worried about the influence of money on the election process if direct primaries are used to select candidates.
“In my opinion, all this open-primary element does is ensure that big-money will have a greater edge in dominating the election process,” he said. “If folks believe that there’s too much corporate sponsorship of candidates now, they haven’t seen anything yet.”
Colleen Johnson, who lost at the convention to Milne, supports the primary election process.
“It is not just because I lost at the convention,” she said. “The process worked great for me one year, it didn’t work for me so well another year. I think the way we communicate with each other has changed a lot over the years and a primary would get more people involved in the decision making process and that would be good.”
Rep. Merill Nelson, R-Grantsville, ran in a primary in 2012 against an incumbent after he competed in the convention process. He defeated the incumbent Republican candidate in the primary and went on to win the general election. Nelson supports political movements such as Count My Vote that strive to make elections more inclusive.
“I support any effort to broaden participation in the political process,” he said.