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Open nominations better for all, even GOP

Over the next few months, leaders of the Utah Republican Party and delegates to party county and state conventions will be making decisions that could drastically change who sits in public offices you vote for.

At face value, the options may seem unimportant — insider stuff that doesn't rise to the level of concern of regular citizens. And in many other states, that would be the case.

But Utah is — according to the Gallup polling organization — the second most Republican state in the nation.

In many contests, from a Utah House seat in Cache County to the Washington County Commission, the hard political reality is the Republican Party nominee is going to win.

It's that simple. Even if there is a Democrat on the ballot — and often there isn't — they have little or no chance. Short of the Republican being arrested for child kidnapping a week before the election or some such other political disaster, the GOP candidate wins.

We all know that the state GOP voted two years ago to close its statewide primaries. Under the current rules, only a registered Republican can pick up a GOP primary ballot. An "unaffiliated" voter can register as a Republican at the primary polling station and still pick up a ballot.

In the August Republican convention this summer, there will likely be a move afoot to change that closed primary. Odds are, delegates will be asked to allow registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters to be able to cast primary ballots. Since only about 10 percent of Utahns now are registered Republicans or Democrats — by far most are "unaffiliated" — such a change would allow most people to keep on voting in the GOP primary without having to register as Republicans.

But if GOP delegates don't make a change, odds are fewer and fewer voters will be going to the GOP primaries — and so fewer people will be picking the Republican nominee in races where the GOP candidate is almost certain to win.

The other change is even more obscure.

For a variety of reasons, state GOP leaders are considering formalizing in bylaws a long-held practice — letting county GOP parties decide how they pick state and county delegates. Specifically, county parties can decide to give automatic delegate status to party officers, precinct and legislative chairmen and public officials elected to partisan posts. They can also fill vacant delegate slots at the convention itself and allow those new delegates to vote on candidates.

That sounds fine, too. But, again, closing down the process — if I can call it that — means fewer people may be picking your legislator or county council member.

Here's a real-life example of how one delegate-selection rule change could impact elections: Let's say you live in an area of Salt Lake County that has elected a GOP Utah House member for 30 years. At times, through retirement or challenge of an incumbent, there is a convention fight.

At the 2002 Salt Lake County Convention, leaders and delegates adopted a rule that says unfilled delegate slots can be filled in the district caucus — right before the delegates vote on the House candidates.

Let's say that in this contested race there are two candidates, an incumbent and a challenger, and 50 delegates who vote on them. But only 40 delegate slots were filled in neighborhood caucus meetings held the previous March. Ten new delegates can be picked from any Republican showing up at the county convention in that district.

The incumbent has 26 delegates locked up, sure votes for him. He runs a slate of 10 of his supporters for the open delegate slots. And, obviously, because he has 26 votes in the caucus — already a majority — his 10 new delegates get elected.

Now the real vote on the candidates takes place. And with his new 10 votes, he gets 36 out of 50 votes.

The convention has already adopted a rule that any candidate who gets 60 percent of the delegate vote in their caucus wins the nomination, no primary. (Also a rule in the 2002 county convention.)

The incumbent wins the GOP nomination at the convention — he goes on to easily defeat his Democratic opponent in November — and while party leaders and the legislator can smile and say the "people spoke" in electing him to the Utah House, the political reality is that 26 people (with the help of 10 convention newcomers) elected him to the Utah House.

True, all the citizens who voted for him in the general election put him in office. But the outcome was actually decided in the Salt Lake County Convention.

As you can see, through closed primaries and convention delegate selection rules, Utah GOP leaders have the ability to take away, in a practical matter, the regular citizens' right to pick their officeholders.

Keeping that in mind, Republicans should opt for more open candidate selection methods. Yes, some Democrats or "unaffiliated" voters may, in a primary, have a say in who the GOP nominee is. And some GOP incumbents could be forced into a primary when they'd prefer to win renomination in convention.

But in the long run, I think an open nomination system, both in the GOP primaries and county and state conventions, is better for all citizens — better even for die-hard Republicans, whose candidates will win the majority of offices in this state for years to come.

Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at