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Michael O. Leavitt: A better nominating process

Eric Szynamski, a delegate from Salt Lake City, votes for U.S. Senate candidates at GOP state convention.
Eric Szynamski, a delegate from Salt Lake City, votes for U.S. Senate candidates at GOP state convention.
August Miller, Deseret News

A New Year presents a great opportunity for not only personal but public reflection.

If I had one New Year's resolution for our state it would be to reverse a more than 40-year general decline in voter participation. Utah used to set a high standard for civic engagement. Now we consistently rank among the bottom five states in the country for voter turnout. It's a black eye on our state and a harbinger of trouble ahead if we don't reverse the trend.

I have joined a group of community leaders across the political spectrum in calling for modernization of Utah's election system. The first step is for the Utah Legislature to pass legislation this year that complements our caucus-convention system by adding an alternative route to the ballot.

Utah's caucus-convention system has many virtues. It's personal and intimate. It allows relatively unknown candidates to be considered fairly. Frankly, I'm quite confident I would never have been elected governor without such a system because it benefits people who are somewhat unknown before seeking public office.

But the caucus-convention system also suffers from a big problem. The world has changed dramatically since statehood when people congregated in homes or public places to exchange information about civic life.

In the 21st century people gather information and engage much differently. Many Utahns don't understand our system, or just don't bother. Others — such as frequent travelers, those with inflexible work schedules, those on LDS missions or in the military, or people with rigid family or other commitments — simply can't attend the caucus meetings.

The problem is worse for those new to Utah. They didn't grow up watching parents attend caucuses or learn about it in grade school Utah history classes. Many are disenfranchised with Utah's system and are part of a growing mismatch between our caucus-convention system, changing demographics and busy and complex lifestyles.

Historically, most states in America had a process that resembled Utah's caucus-convention system. Today, Utah stands alone. Every other state has moved away from a system where political conventions can exclusively nominate candidates for public office. No other state has a system as restrictive as ours.

In 2010, I attended my party caucus in Salt Lake City where our family has lived for more than 30 years. About 20 voting districts met at a local middle school. I would estimate about 500 people gathered in the auditorium before moving into breakout sessions by voting district. Three things struck me: the absence of young people, new residents and women.

Later I read the results of a comprehensive survey comparing the demographics of the Utah voting age population with those who serve as delegates. It turns out my area was quite typical. Forty percent of state convention delegates are 55 years of age or older, compared to 18 percent of all Utahns. Eighty-one percent of Republican and 76 percent of Democrat state delegates have lived in Utah more than 20 years. And, most troubling, women are dramatically underrepresented among Republican and Democrat state delegates.

This is a matter of such importance that I have joined the Count My Vote Coalition. It includes former governors, former party chairs from both major parties, and prominent members of the judiciary, business and academic communities. We have studied systems in other states and have concluded there is a significant need to modernize and reinvigorate Utah's proud tradition of citizen participation.

Recognizing the virtues of the party caucus system, Count My Vote proposes to leave it intact. However, like every other state in the country, we believe Utah needs more primaries and more opportunities for all Utahns to participate in elections.

Forty-four states currently use a direct primary election. Five of the remaining six use a convention but also include an alternative way to the primary ballot. Utah can no longer remain the lone outlier and should instead adopt a system that allows any candidate who can organize a petition to be placed on the primary ballot by securing the signatures of 2 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the last election for that office.

Republican candidates running for governor, for example, would be able to access the primary ballot by the current system of securing 40 percent of the delegate vote at convention, but they also could get the signatures of 13,000 registered members of their party. Those candidates will then be judged by all voters rather than the few who attend a nominating convention. In our current system, approximately 3,500 Republican delegates attend the state political convention. Because of the strong Republican majority in Utah, our governor could effectively be elected by fewer people than those who elect student body presidents at Utah's larger high schools.

A group of people in both political parties will be intensely unhappy with this proposal. They understand the system and have learned to use it as a way to exercise extensive influence over the outcome of elections. In fact, they will argue the system is best controlled by people like them who care enough to show up at caucus meetings.

But Utah's changing demographics and busy lifestyles have created a new reality. Our system of government should enable participation, not restrict, much less cap, it. It is a lesson of history that when political participation drops, the process begins to polarize and produces misguided public policies. The Count My Vote Coalition believes the state Legislature should pass legislation modernizing our system and adding an alternative path to the primary ballot as a first important step. If they act this year, a new and improved system could be in place for the 2014 election.

If the Legislature is unwilling to act, there is one more alternative: a citizens' initiative. It is not a desirable way to make law — unless there is no other option. However, if elected officials refuse to act, it is one tool that remains.

Michael O. Leavitt is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. He served in the cabinet of President George W. Bush and as governor of Utah. He is the founder and chairman of Leavitt Partners. Website: