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Does Utah caucus system shortchange women?

SALT LAKE CITY — This Saturday, when some 7,000 delegates gather in downtown Salt Lake City for the Utah state Republican and Democratic conventions, a large bloc of voters will find themselves sorely under-represented in the process.

They comprise 48 percent of registered Republican voters and 65 percent of those who call themselves Democrats.

The demographic that will be shortchanged in winnowing the fields of political contenders down to the fall candidates whose names appear on ballots? Women.

While women make up roughly half the Republican voters in the state, they'll be outnumbered 3-to-1 by men at their convention gathering. Democrats are doing better but are still far short of parity with voters, with only about 43 percent female delegates.

First-time GOP delegate Kristen Jowers said she believes more women aren't involved in party caucuses because they just don't have the time.

"I hope that I don't sound sexist when I say this, but I think few women are represented here because we're very busy mothering or juggling careers," said Jowers, a stay-at-home mother of five.

Since being elected as the only female delegate in her North Salt Lake precinct, Jowers said she's spent two or three hours a day studying candidates.

"I take it very seriously," she said. Jowers said she feels responsible for representing the views of those in her precinct who don't have a vote at the state convention.

Jowers wanted to be a delegate because she realized that was the only way she'd have a voice in the contentious race for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Bob Bennett.

"Especially as a woman, and knowing I would be under-represented," she said. "I feel women are often under-represented in our state politics."

Jowers said women tend to be more concerned than men about issues that affect family life, including education and health. "That's our role."

Just days before the convention, she said she's narrowed her choice to between two of the eight Senate candidates, but she declined to name the pair.

Her husband, University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics director Kirk Jowers, said the low number of women delegates demonstrates how the caucus system fails to represent Utah voters.

"When you shortchange the most major demographic, which is gender because it's roughly split — if you can't get that right, you know, No. 1, it's not representative," Kirk Jowers said.

Why more women aren't delegates isn't clear to him.

"The only thing I can go to is our delegate process is tailor-made to be an insiders game, and it appears that more men are playing it," he said.

The approach to gender/delegate issues by party leaders is as disparate as the ratio of men to women in their respective delegate corps.

State GOP Chairman Dave Hansen said the party hadn't tallied the exact number of female delegates and couldn't explain why there are so few.

"I don't really know. We've never put quotas on," Hansen said. "We'd like to have more women involved. But the most important thing is to let the precincts decide who they want to send."

The Republican leader discounted any suggestion that the disparity between male and female delegates demonstrates the caucus system doesn't represent Utah voters.

"Obviously, people that attend probably have a stronger interest in the political system. That's why they take the time to do it," Hansen said. "Our goal is to just encourage everyone, to let people know this part of the process, the caucus, is a chance for every Utahn to attend and make their voice heard."

Utah Democratic Chairman Wayne Holland, however, said the emphasis placed on a fair gender balance among candidates and delegates in the party is aptly reflected in the state's legislative Democratic caucus.

"Utah is the only state in the nation where both the Democratic caucuses, in the Senate and the House, (are) 50 percent female," Holland said. "It's something that's important to us, as a party, something we've worked very hard for and a fact we're proud of."

Eleven of Utah's 22 Democratic state representatives are women, as are four of the eight senators, including the minority party leader, Sen. Pat Jones.

Holland recognized the skewed ratio of men to women among state party delegates, as compared to Democratic voters, is "not the balance we would like to see," but he said efforts are ongoing to achieve a 60-40 ratio between female and male convention delegates.

As the head of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s commission to study ways to boost voter turnout, Kirk Jowers pushed for changes to the caucus system. But Huntsman's replacement, Gov. Gary Herbert, supports the current system, saying it benefits candidates who don't have the name recognition or financial resources to run successfully in a primary.

Kirk Jowers said he'd like to see the threshold for a candidate to advance from a convention to a primary dropped from the current 40 percent to around 20 percent.

"It may or may not provide more representation to women, but at the very least, it would allow more races to go to a primary and give more Utahns a meaningful vote," he said.

e-mail: araymond@desnews.com; lisa@desnews.com