Utah's political leaders like to praise the state's residents for their usually high voting records. Utah often leads the nation in voter turnout, especially in presidential election years.
But in 1994 and again this year, the June primary turnout was abysmal. Sixteen percent voter turnout may be acceptable, even normal, for primaries in other states or big cities. But not here.And what's worse is that such a turnout can be improved in Utah. Just change the primary election date.
I fully understand why Republican and Democratic lawmakers agreed in 1993 to move the traditional September primary to June. Both parties had just come off bitter primary battles - Republicans in 1990 in the 3rd Congressional District, Democrats in 1992 in their U.S. Senate race.
The change would give only a month or so of direct intra-party primary competition - from the May state conventions to the late-June primary.
Previously, political parties in Utah held June state conventions and if no candidate got 70 percent of the delegate vote, the top two convention vote-getters would campaign against each other until the September primary.
But by September, party insiders said, it was tough to get PAC money for the final federal candidates, and PACs don't give in primaries. Much of the PAC money was already allocated by September, they argued.
Worse, two Republican candidates would run against each other from June to September with the winner only running against the Democrat from September to November.
In the 1980s, Utah Democratic Party leaders did a pretty good job of settling quietly among themselves who would be their party's main candidates. Thus there would only be token opposition candidates in big races and those tokens eliminated in the state convention.
But Republicans - being a much larger, diverse party in Utah - couldn't do that. They'd end up with divisive primaries while the Democratic candidate stood on the sideline all summer collecting money and support.
Finally, a June primary, advocates of the change argued, could allow for parties to hold presidential primary elections - with the vain hope that Utah (with only five Electoral College votes) could be some kind of player in the presidential selection process.
While a June primary, on paper, may have looked like a reasonable idea, it has turned out that there isn't much of a turnout.
If political leaders in the state really want higher voter participation (and cynics among us may wonder if they really do), then the date must be changed.
Here's one idea:
To really get impact on the presidential selection process, do as Gov. Mike Leavitt suggests - go to a regional presidential primary election in March, maybe even February. The only people on the ballot would be presidential candidates.
Fix the low June primary turnout by moving the whole state political process back.
Place the candidate filing deadline in April, mass meetings in May, county conventions in June and state conventions in July. Yeh, delegates to the county and state conventions probably wouldn't like that, interrupting their vacations and all that. But who is more important here, 2,000 delegates or all the voters?
Move the primary back to early September. That would give about the same time for a primary race - late July state convention to early September primary - as is now the case with mid-May state conventions and late June primary.
In presidential years it may be a bit tough picking your national convention delegates in the July state conventions and getting them organized and ready for the August national conventions. But we're talking 30 or 40 national delegates here. They can work out the logistics.
There's another way, of course. Rig the system so there really are no primaries. And the best way to do that is to lower the state convention nominating percentage.
Democrats did that this year. They went from the traditional 70 percent of delegate votes needed for nomination to 60 percent. Republicans stayed at 70 percent to nominate. Democrats even talked about going to a 55 percent level to nominate. Both Democrats and Republicans also went to multiple ballots, hoping to winnow down the candidates and help pick a candidate in the convention.
But it didn't work. Neither Kelly Atkinson nor Ross Anderson could get 60 percent of the Democratic convention vote. Even with multiple ballots, Todd Neilson fell just 19 votes short of 70 percenting Merrill Cook in the GOP convention.
No, don't eliminate primaries through internal party nominating rules. That really short-changes voters. Make primaries more, not less, meaningful by changing the election dates and giving us back our September primary.