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Utah's unusual political nominating system under way and under scrutiny

SALT LAKE CITY — In the next few weeks, candidates from both parties running in major races including U.S. Senate and Congress will be nominated through a process that renders politics a spectator sport for most Utah voters.

Only some 4,000 Republican delegates and 2,700 Democratic delegates will decide which candidates advance — and which, if any, will face a primary run-off election in June, the next opportunity for every Utah voter to participate.

"It's really kind of a genius system," said state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright. "In some cases, it's really decisively decided by delegates and then candidates don't have to spend time and money" on a primary race.

But Utah's nominating system, seen as unique among the states, does have its critics who are calling for change.

This election year, candidates are traversing the state to woo delegates elected at party caucuses last month that drew record turnouts.

While delegates often commit to certain candidates at their neighborhood caucus meetings, particularly in high-profile races, they are not bound to vote for those candidates at the convention. Candidates then have about five weeks to sway delegates, who often have multiple daily invitations to choose from, including meetings at restaurants where candidates pick up the tab.

County conventions have convened since last month, where delegates are narrowing the field of candidates running for county offices and most state House and Senate seats. State delegates will attend their respective party's state conventions to choose candidates for federal and statewide offices like governor. Both the Democratic and Republican state conventions are scheduled for April 21.

State delegate Daryl Acumen, who grew up in Maryland and attended college in California, said talking personally with an incumbent governor or a senate candidate isn't reserved for a few privileged insiders in Utah's system.

"It's a lot different," he said. "You actually have a chance to have your voice heard."

Critics, though, say the process puts too much power in the hands of the delegates, who were able to end the re-election bid of a longtime U.S. senator, Bob Bennett, at the 2010 Republican convention.

Among the changes being debated is a call for the political parties to make it more difficult for candidates to avoid a primary election, by boosting the current 60 percent threshold of delegate support required to become the party's nominee at convention.

Also under consideration is a ballot initiative to change Utah law to allow candidates an alternative means of getting on the primary ballot, likely through gathering voter signatures.

"We would get the best of both worlds," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a supporter of changing the caucus system. Delegates should be able to choose the party's best candidates at a convention, but the final pick should be left up to voters, he said.

State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said Democrats are committed to a "complete and thorough" look at the caucus-convention system. The goal, he said, is to come up with several plans for consideration next year. Those proposals may include modifying the system, changing the 60 percent rule or going to a straight primary election.

"It's definitely worth a very serious inquiry into the issues," he said.

Dabakis declined to say what format he prefers, saying he wants to educate himself before taking a position.

Wright contends the existing process works. The state GOP staged a $300,000 campaign to increase turnout at the party's March 15 neighborhood caucuses and saw attendance more than double to 125,000. Democrats, too, reported a record turnout. The big crowds could, in part, be attributed to the LDS Church re-emphasizing in statements to church members the need for people to get involved.

"People realized how important their voice was," Wright said, describing the larger turnout as helping to ensure the delegates are more representative of Republican voters overall.

He said voters have the opportunity to influence their delegates. Delegates, Wright said, "should have an open mind and listen to the different candidates and listen to the people in the neighborhood."

Voters who didn't participate in their caucuses can contact the state parties to find out who is representing them at the conventions to let them know which candidates should be supported, Wright said.

"I'm a big believer that one person can make a big difference," he said. "If you speak up, people are going to listen."

Paul Baltes, a state delegate and GOP precinct chairman in Springville, hosts regular meetings in his home to keep his non-delegate neighbors informed about candidates.

"What you don't want is the drive-by delegate," he said. "You want someone involved."

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