Utah Democrats may not be ready to part with their caucus and convention system just yet, but it appears that by next year they’ll be ready to drastically alter the way they pick their candidates.
At the Democrats’ State Convention in June, 23 percent of their delegates voted not to move to a direct primary system, which would allow candidates to automatically get onto a primary ballot for a vote from the general public, rather than facing the party’s delegates at convention.
Yet only one month later, proposals are already beginning to circulate about how the caucus and convention system could be improved—allowing for more primaries, which bring in more public involvement, yet still maintaining the integrity of the caucus system.
It seems there are two ideas gaining the most momentum. The first would raise the threshold of delegate votes needed by a candidate to avoid a primary to either 70 or 80 percent—if no candidate could get the overwhelming support of party delegates, they would move on to a primary.
The second popular idea sets the threshold on the bottom side of the vote. Any candidate who receives 20 percent or more of the delegates’ vote would qualify to get onto the primary ballot. That would mean that if one candidate took 60 percent of the vote, and two others received 20 percent each, all three would move to the primary.
“That would retain the vitality of the caucus system and the delegates,” says Glenn Wright, chair of the Summit County Democratic Party, who is in favor of the second idea. “I’ve spoken to many of the other county party chairs, they want more primaries, it raises visibility for candidates. Having this minimum threshold keeps out plants from the other party, and keeps wacko candidates off the ballot.”
Dorothy Engleman, chair of the Washington County Democratic Party tells us she hasn’t seen either of the two ideas on paper yet, but likes the idea of the 20 percent thresholds. “I was disappointed [at the state convention] because we missed an opportunity to extend the Democratic Party to new voters. The current caucus system disenfranchises people outside of the Wasatch Front, who can’t afford to go to a convention that’s hundreds of miles away to support a candidate they like.” Speaking about the 20 percent thresholds, Engleman emphasized she hasn’t seen a proposal yet, but feels like “it has some validity to it. It says the candidate has a base of support before a primary. The Democratic Party has to entice independent voters who never feel like they have a voice in Utah, because the Republican Party’s ballot is closed. That’s the best way to grow.”
Democratic Party chairman Jim Dabakis wasn’t willing to say whether or not he supported any of the new ideas coming forward, but said big changes are likely coming to his party. “My sense of the delegates [at the convention] was that they certainly wanted a change, and we’re going to end up with something significantly different. I think the people of Utah want more primaries, not less. Our delegates were pretty clear they want to expand to include more people, but also keep the structure and camaraderie of the caucus system.”
After the Utah Republican Party’s delegates also rejected moving to direct primaries at their convention in May, a group calling itself “Count My Vote,” led by former Utah Republican Governor Mike Leavitt and Republican University of Utah political scientist Kirk Jowers, began fundraising and gathering signatures in an attempt to put the decision on the 2014 ballot and let Utah voters decide whether to keep the caucus/convention system or move to direct primaries. According to a recent report from the Salt Lake Tribune, the group is raising money quickly. In the same article, the Trib quotes Utah GOP chairman James Evans saying, “At the end of the day, the debate is about who gets to control who can use the party label. I can tell you right now, in [an open] primary option, you will see many interests, like big labor, sponsoring candidates in the Republican primary, all sorts of things like that where there are just all sorts of unintended consequences.”
Dabakis says the Republican Party should leave the Dems out of it. “It’s outrageous that Leavitt and the Exoro Group are trying to persuade Democrats to help them get back into power after their delegates booted them out. We’ll take care of our own party, they shouldn’t be asking us to help fix their problems.”