In January 2016, Utah Governor Gary Herbert sported an impressive 77% approval rating among Utahns, including an overwhelming 90% among Republicans. Just months later at the G.O.P. nominating convention, however, he lost to the more-conservative Overstock.com C.E.O. Jonathan Johnson, who received 55% of the votes, forcing a runoff primary in June. Herbert won that runoff primary with a whopping 72% of the vote. What accounts for the massive disconnect between Herbert’s widespread public support and his decisive loss at the G.O.P. convention? Party delegates. Delegates, consistently more conservative than members of the Republican party generally, have repeatedly chosen candidates who do not represent their constituents.
Before 2014, candidates for elected office in Utah could get on the ballot only by winning their party’s nomination at the party’s convention where only delegates, elected in neighborhood caucuses, could vote. This was known as the caucus-convention system. But in 2014, a group called Count My Vote petitioned via ballot initiative to replace the caucus-convention system with a direct primary in which all could vote–not just delegates. To head off the ballot initiative, the legislature passed SB54, a compromise bill that set out the current dual-path system where candidates can appear on the party’s primary ballot by winning at the nominating convention or by gathering signatures. This compromise allowed Governor Herbert (2016) and Representative John Curtis (2017) to win the Republican nominations for their respective offices despite losing to more conservative candidates at the G.O.P. conventions. Both went on to win decisive victories in the general elections, and Count My Vote, having won a victory in the compromise, did not pursue a ballot initiative.
In the wake of these two high-profile cases demonstrating that Republican delegates are far more conservative than those they purportedly represent, Count My Vote has made a comeback. It is petitioning to modify the dual-path SB54 compromise by decreasing the number of signatures needed to get on the primary ballot. In response, the Keep My Voice group has sprouted up, pushing for a ballot initiative that would undo the SB54 compromise and return to the pre-2014 caucus-convention system. In deep-red Utah, where Republican supermajorities govern in the Legislature and no Democrat has held statewide office since Jan Graham ended her tenure as Attorney General in 2001, races are often decided at the G.O.P. nomination stage. Understanding these two proposed initiatives, both of which may appear on the ballot in November, is thus key to making an informed decision about Utah’s future.
Count My Vote
Count My Vote essentially proposes greater ballot access–that has upsides and downsides. Proponents of Count My Vote argue mainly that opening up the nomination and primary process will lead to candidates more representative of Utahns’ political views. Delegates, they say, represent a smaller, more-conservative segment of Utah Republicans, and delegates have consistently nominated candidates with more right-wing views than those they represent. Count My Vote also seeks to lower the threshold for signature gatherers to get on the ballot. Critics say that Count My Vote will advantage incumbent candidates and those who already have significant personal wealth or name recognition. In Utah, campaigns are allowed to pay signature gatherers, which some say will enable those with means to simply buy a slot on the primary ballot.
Keep My Voice
Keep My Voice advocates for keeping the voice of party delegates by eliminating other means of getting on the ballot. Supporters of Keep My Voice assert that the caucus-convention route offers a friendlier path for those without significant wealth or name recognition. It takes much less money, they say, to run a campaign targeted at the small body of delegates rather than the entire body of potential primary voters. It’s difficult not to notice the irony of a group seeking to protect an entrenched interest (the Utah G.O.P. establishment) making the argument that its initiative actually expands the candidate pool. The primary criticism of Keep My Voice is that it does not produce candidates with views matching the candidates’ prospective constituents, but rather a smaller, more conservative subset thereof.
The outcome of this standoff will affect Utah politics for years to come. Some may be tempted to choose a position based on whether they support moderate conservative candidates like Governor Herbert and Representative Curtis or more-extreme conservatives like Jonathan Johnson and Chris Herrod–Herrod beat John Curtis at last year’s G.O.P. convention. But decisions like this reshape the political playing field and should not be made on a partisan basis. Voters should consider which option leads to a better-functioning and more representative democracy rather than short-term partisan interests.
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