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In our opinion: Utah should continue its proud history of female participation in politics

SHARE In our opinion: Utah should continue its proud history of female participation in politics
FILE — An Associated Press analysis of state legislatures found Utah currently has the eighth lowest percentage of female legislative representation in the country at just 15 percent. We need a system that encourages more female participation.

FILE — An Associated Press analysis of state legislatures found Utah currently has the eighth lowest percentage of female legislative representation in the country at just 15 percent. We need a system that encourages more female participation.

Deseret News

When it comes to women in politics, Utah has a proud history.

The territorial legislature granted women the right to vote in 1870, only a few months after Wyoming became the first territory to do so. That was such a radical move at the time that the U.S. Congress decided to remove the right a few years later. But when Washington decided to grant statehood to Utah, state leaders made sure women’s suffrage was written into the state constitution, which took effect in 1896, 24 years before women’s suffrage was added to the U.S. Constitution.

Utah subsequently was the first state in the nation to elect a female state senator, Martha Hughes Cannon, in 1896.

So it was troubling indeed to read an Associated Press analysis of state legislatures, published recently, which found Utah currently has the eighth lowest percentage of female legislative representation in the country at just 15 percent. Equally troubling, the report said Utah was one of only 16 states that had seen its share of female lawmakers drop over the past decade.

There appears to be no shortage of people willing to offer opinions as to why this is so. Most of these reasons are fanciful or based on false assumptions. Nothing in the state’s culture or history suggests women should be discouraged from political participation.

However, one factor more directly related to elections in Utah may indeed have an impact. Utah’s convention/caucus system for nominating candidates results in a delegate process not representative of the overall demographics of party members, producing, in some instances, candidates who are equally unrepresentative.

That much has been demonstrated by the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. It has conducted regular studies of the demographic makeup of delegates to Republican and Democratic conventions in Utah since 2010. During that time, it has recorded scant change in the percentage of women involved.

Among Republican delegates in 2016, only 24 percent were female. Among Democrats, the figure was 47 percent. However, 56 percent of overall Republican voters were female. For Democrats, the figure was 55 percent.

The study noted other differences, as well. Most notably, delegates tend to be more extreme in their views than their party’s overall voters. The caucus system results in skewed representation and likely discourages participation.

Few things illustrate this disconnect better than the results of this year’s gubernatorial primary. In the convention, delegates chose challenger Jonathan Johnson over incumbent Gary Herbert, 55 percent to 45 percent. In the primary election, Herbert won by a 44 percent margin.

Recent changes in state law allowing people to obtain a place on a primary election ballot through petition signatures is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, state GOP officials have fought this change at every turn.

Our hope is that this change eventually will reform the caucus system enough to encourage greater participation, leading in turn to more women running for office. As this state's history suggests, democracy works best when it is truly representative and open to all.