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Is it time for Utah to drop the delegate system?

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Utah's political community is once again debating questions about the merits of Utah's unique caucus/convention party nominating system. Our views:

A recent Deseret News/KSL-TV/Dan Jones & Associates survey indicated state delegates are out of step with average party members and mainstream Utahns. Is this a real or contrived problem?

Pignanelli: "Political extremism involves two prime ingredients: an excessively simple diagnosis of the world's ills, and a conviction that there are identifiable villains back of it all." — John W. Gardner

The Jones survey verifies the belief held by many experienced Utah politicos: The delegate system is a quaint but outdated relic of a bygone era (much like LaVarr) that does not represent mainstream Democrats or Republicans. The problem is beyond the fact that delegates maintain strident right-wing or left-wing positions. For example, most Republican and Democratic delegates are men — yet the majority of Utah voters are women. Almost 90 percent of GOP delegates are LDS, a substantially higher ratio than the general population. Supporters claim the system allows candidates with limited resources to compete. This ignores the fact that millions are spent to influence just 3,500 Utahns (i.e. the 2004 gubernatorial race, the current U.S. Senate contest). In a legislative contest, fewer than 100 delegates can determine the nomination. Therefore, special-interest groups stack the meetings to dominate the delegate selection proceedings. I can state from personal experience that elected officials often struggle between the necessary compromises of legislative process and the demands of delegates with narrow convictions.

Webb: Believe it or not, delegates aren't ax murderers or ogres. They're our neighbors. They're schoolteachers, bankers, lawyers, truck drivers, homemakers and carpenters, hailing from every neighborhood in Utah.

What sets them apart is they care about government and they want to participate. They took the time to join a political party, study the issues and the candidates, and to attend their neighborhood caucus and run to become a delegate.

Any adult in the state (that effectively excludes Frank) could have done the same, because this system is open to anyone who wants to get involved. So whom would you want to have the largest role in selecting party nominees? One of your neighbors who has engaged and learned about the issues and the candidates? Or someone who doesn't care much and hasn't paid attention, except watching a 30-second political TV spot during "Desperate Housewives" (Frank's favorite show)?

Party delegates have always been more conservative or more liberal than Utahns in general. If that bugs you, then get involved yourself. The do-gooders wail about disenfranchisement, but it's all self-disenfranchisement. Don't complain if you won't get in the game. Those who want more moderate delegates just need to show up.

I'm very much a mainstream Republican and I'm a delegate. I'm more moderate than many of my fellow delegates. I tend to support practical Republicans who want to solve problems, not just spout ideological slogans. I wish there were more delegates like me, but I respect the process and those who choose to engage rather than just complain.

Utah is now the last state using the pure caucus/convention system. Is it time for a change? Could the delegate process ever be dumped?

Webb: No system is perfect, but ours is superior. If we want to provide a big advantage to rich people, famous people and incumbents, then switch to a direct primary system. An average person would then have little chance of being elected. It's true that our system rewards those who engage. What makes it fair is that everyone can engage.

The political parties control the nomination process, and it's not likely it will change. But look at the results: We have good governance. We've had responsible, practical, problem-solving governors for decades. We've been ably represented in Congress by reasonable people representing mainstream Utah.

It's true that right now, delegates are angry and anti-incumbent. But everyone is angry. These things go in cycles, and this, too, shall pass. Overall, our system has served the state well.

Pignanelli: The delegate/caucus system was established in the Progressive Era to thwart party bosses by enhancing the representation of individual members. But 21st-century lifestyles prevent the broad-based participation in the evening caucuses. Thus, other states dumped the delegate system, and use the direct primary election to determine the party's flag bearers. Necessary barriers to candidacy (i.e. higher filing fees, sponsor signatures) weed out the less-serious candidates. A primary allows easy access for a broad scale of interests, not just hard-core activists, to determine candidates for the general election.

Incumbents and challengers should appeal across the spectrum of their political party, not to a handful of delegates. Unfortunately, the delegate system is so entrenched that change will be difficult. Shrewd legislators have developed strong relationships with their longtime delegates, and will not irritate them by legislating them out of existence. A citizens initiative could mandate the primary election, but requires serious financial resources. Hinckley Institute of Politics director Kirk Jowers offers a creative solution: In pursuit of ethical reform, prohibit candidates from feeding and entertaining delegates. This underscores another maxim: Removing freebies fosters real change.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.