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This month, Utah Republicans and Democrats will gather in their state organizing conventions to nominate officers and conduct party business. Among other items, the parties will consider resolutions to improve the caucus-convention system. I count myself among a sizable group of Utahns who would like to see both major political parties modernize the state’s election system.
We have a lot to be proud of in Utah, but voter participation is not on the list. Our voter turnout now consistently ranks in the bottom 10 states. Voter participation in Utah declined from 69 percent in 1972 to 51.4 percent in 2012. That’s right. Only about one in two Utahns of voting age showed up at the ballot box in the last election. Clearly, something is wrong.
Experts will tell you there are many reasons voter participation has fallen.
All of the problems need to be addressed, but we can start with Utah’s caucus-convention system.
The caucus-convention system contributes to low voter turnout because it limits participation in the political process. The limitation comes in two ways. First, the system is inflexible. Caucus night is a set date and time. You have to be there to be included, and this just doesn’t work in the modern world. People who are serving LDS missions, caring for children at home, serving in the military, attending to a sick person, traveling for work, giving birth, sick in bed, involved in an out-of-state family wedding (my issue this year) or any other number of conflicts can’t participate.
The second limitation is social. The caucus system requires people to share their political views. Many are uncomfortable talking about their political preferences in a crowd, particularly in their own neighborhood. Instead, they just stay home.
I applaud Utah’s Republican Party for realizing the problem and considering improvements. Retiring party Chairman Thomas Wright has shown leadership in addressing the issue. At their organizing convention, Republicans will consider a list of potential improvements. Among others, the party is considering more caucus-convention training for the general public, online pre-caucus registration for attendees, a procedure to allow for proxy voting and even a multi-day nominating process.
All of this is well and good, but falls short of my aspirations. We need a system that makes it far easier for everyone to participate.
Other states have modernized their nominating process. Forty-four states use a direct primary election. Five of the remaining six use a convention, but include an alternative path to the primary ballot. Utah should learn from other states and then create the right system for us.
I don’t know the right course, but I know we have a problem. The Count My Vote Coalition, of which I’m a part, has reached out to both major political parties to seek improvements. If there aren’t changes, the coalition will seek a ballot initiative to change the system by a vote of the people. My read is the public will overwhelmingly endorse a change.
Some in both major political parties are intensely unhappy with the Count My Vote Coalition. They argue the system is best controlled by people who care enough to show up at caucus meetings. They also emphasize that
our system of governance is representative, not democratic. They think change will be bad for our state and their political party.
I disagree. We need a system that increases participation, not limits it. I could live with a direct primary system like they have in almost every other state. I could also live with a dual system that keeps the caucus system in place, but offers candidates an alternative route to the primary ballot. This would be the best of both worlds.
What I can’t live with is a system that increasingly shuts out well-meaning Utahns who want a voice in their government.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.