Nominating Candidates: The Politics and Process of Utah’s Unique Convention and Primary System

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For most of its history, Utah has used a convention-primary system to nominate candidates for elected office. In the spring of general election years, citizens in small caucus meetings held throughout the state elect delegates to represent them at county and state conventions. At the state conventions, delegates nominate candidates to compete for their party’s nomination in the primary election, or, if a candidate receives enough votes, they receive the nomination outright and proceed straight to the general election.

Utah is one of only a handful of states that still uses a convention, and the only one that allows political parties to preclude a primary election for statewide or congressional offices if candidates receive a high enough proportion of delegate votes. In most of the states that also use conventions, candidates must garner a certain amount of delegate votes to proceed to the primary election. However, they can also bypass this process and gain access to the primary ballot via petition. This system makes Utah unique among states and has been controversial in recent years, especially when delegates rejected Governor Olene Walker in 2004 and then-Senator Bob Bennett in 2010.

Utah’s historically high voter turnout rates have consistently declined in recent decades. In 1960, 78.3% of the voting age population voted in the general election. This declined along with national voter turnout rates in the 1970s due to the passage of the 26th Amendment which lowered the voting age to 18. Since that time, national voter turnout rates have remained stable. However, in Utah, they have continued to decrease, and by 2008, had fallen to about 50% of the voting age population, just below the national average.

Recently, questions have been raised about whether Utah’s system of conventions and primaries should be reformed, and how these changes would occur. Those calling for reform argue that Utah’s caucus-convention system disenfranchises the majority of voters, and that convention delegates do not represent the average voter. Supporters of the current system argue that a party’s right to association is protected by the First Amendment, and that they have the right to govern themselves and control how their candidates are selected.

Reform would most likely come from the Legislature, the parties, or from a citizen initiative. However, any reform would possibly face litigation by others who view the reform as unconstitutional.

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(Updated on 6/19/2012 to correct historical references to state convention vote requirements)


11 Responses to “Nominating Candidates: The Politics and Process of Utah’s Unique Convention and Primary System”

  1. Lon Child

    There is a lot of mention that with out the caucus system people with out name recognition and without a lot of money has a chance to win election. How do we explain Sen.Hatch and others that have been in forever. Hatch spent an unprecedented $12,279,313. His voting record was close to Ted Kennedy. He in essences is partially responsible in our monstrous deficit,and he has been in the Senate since 1976.
    Most incumbent’s in the state of Utah are reelected. Lets be honest.

  2. utah_1

    If you are going to run as a democratic candidate, you have to comply with their rules. If you are going to run as a republican, you have to comply with their rules. If you want to run and not have those rules, you can run as an unaffiliated or independent. There are also 3rd party. This is an attempt to change the party rules by state law, bypassing the party and is even an attempt to change the law bypassing the legislature.

  3. Susan Horne

    This is more than just a counter incentive to voting, this is the worst kind of cronyism. In a state that prides itself on integrity, we should be ashamed! It’s time to stand up for our rights and clean up the corruption.

  4. Steve Kroes

    Interesting response from the Republican Party on the issue of caucus turnout:

    I believe higher turnout at the caucuses would go a long way toward making the system represent average GOP voters.

  5. Jacqueline Smith

    The caucus convention system is the mainstay of a Republic. If we want to be like every other state where only money or name recognition are the key components of the race, then eliminate the caucus system. This would be a huge mistake. A Representative Republic works best when those who are informed and care about the outcomes participate. If we want more participation (which is always a good thing) then we should do more to educate the people that are interested so they will participate. The Republicans in Utah kept the caucus system quite a little secret, and now the word is out, and the etablishment, power-hungry politicians are worried, it will no longer serve them. Good. Now it can serve the people.

  6. Louis Welch

    I am a proponent to Utah’s caucus system as it gives the person with little money, the opportunity to run for office and keeps those that have far more money from getting their votes by buying them. The eighborbood can choose who they want and the. They can be elected at the convention. It affords anyone the opportunity to run. It is. I wonder that those that are opposing our current system are those that have lost to the system and many of them are those that could buy ores with the money they have or recieve, leaving them beholdingto their donors. I say we leave the system as it is, and those that are sayi g we don’t allow people to vote are only spinning the subject as everyone that wants to attend their party caucuses can and there, they get to vote for those delegates that will represent them and then, they still get to vote in the primary and general elections

  7. David Edward Garber

    I’ve participated in Utah’s caucus/convention/primary system and think that it’s just fine. Most Utahn voters don’t care that much about politics, and shouldn’t need to care all that much, but their caucus-elected delegates tend to be very passionate and well-informed by comparison. Caucus/convention systems reduce the influence of money in the nominating process by helping even “little guys” to get noticed without having to spend much money to do so. They also reduce the influence of biased “mainstream” journalists, since delegates are better able than other voters to get ample information directly from candidates, and are therefore less reliant upon scanty news tidbits filtered indirectly through a biased MSM lens. Delegates also choose nominees by voting in multiple rounds until one candidate secures majority support, which avoids the problem of the “Ross Perot effect.” Altogether, this system has produced nominees that have helped Utah to become the best-managed state in America. This system has only drawn significant criticism since Utahns began to choose delegates who insisted that the GOP’s nominees to be more faithful to the GOP’s platform, and thus began to chose Chaffetz over Cannon and Lee over Bennett. Since some folks don’t like who’s winning the game, they want to change the game so that they can win it more easily. Let’s not abandon a good system in order to be as foolish as other states have been—I don’t want a new system that’s more easily dominated by both big money and big journalism and that’s more easily gamed by political elites; instead, I prefer what we’ve got.

  8. Larry Jensen

    Opponents of Utah’s neighborhood election process site pathetic voter turnout in elections as the reason to scrap our more localized system. Utah’s voter turnout is roughly the same as the national average which mearly indicates Utah voters care as little about doing their duty as a citizen as the rest of the voters in America, almost all of which use a different, candidate nomination. Some citizens choose to watch Dancing with the Stars instead of participating in their bi-annual neighborhood election. There is no good reason (other than political ideology engineering) to provide non-participants with MORE political influence in order to dilute the influence of those who make the effort to participate. The premise that neighborhood elections are less “democratic” than the more common open primaries (who’s fruits are leaders who have built America’s $15 Trillion dollar debt) is without merit. Remaining peculiar in this (and other areas) is the reason Utah has a bright future and most other states do not.

  9. Larry Jensen

    Utah’s neighborhood election process continually produces the best managed state government in America. Those wishing to fix a system that is not broken simply want different ideological results.

  10. Linda Johnson

    Between the peculiar goings-on for redistricting and the methods of choosing candidates to run for office, I find it difficult to motivate myself to vote (though always have; I worry about new voters being motivated, though). I disagree with one statement above and in the full report; it seems to me that Democrats here–just like Republicans–are more conservative than elsewhere. It is perhaps perceived that Ds in Utah are “further left” just because the Rs are so far right, I’ve heard the comment before but disagree quite strongly.

    The fact is, there is little voter motivation, & very little voter fraud. I think to get voters to participate both nominations and voting should be made as open to all as physically possible. Yet new barriers to participation are erected on a regular basis. Fixing the nominating and primary systems to make it possible to run for office without being anyone’s “crony” would be a good first step. Permanent vote-by-mail statewide is also a good thing. Signature ID systems should be all that are needed. This is supposed to be at minimum a DEMOCRATIC Republic. We don’t elect people to be plutarchs or dictators, we need to be able to replace the ones who don’t do the people’s bidding.

  11. Nancy Wingelaar

    Utah’s outdated system lends itself to selection of candidates who are at the extremes of the party and who do not represent the wishes of the majority of the party members or of the electorate at large. A review and proposed changes to address these short comings is needed.

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