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PROVO — If Utah Republicans want to vote to select the party's presidential nominee next year, they won't be able to do it at the traditional ballot box.
By an overwhelming majority, members of the Utah Republican Party Central Committee on Saturday approved a resolution to conduct next year’s GOP presidential primary during neighborhood caucus meetings.
After about 30 minutes of spirited debate and discussion, members were finally able to come to a consensus that allows the party to consider its presidential nomination at the same time it chooses its delegates to county and state political conventions.
“This is a very positive step,” said Enid Mickelsen, national committeewoman for Utah to the Republican National Committee. “The caucus system in Utah means that candidates who are not personally wealthy or not already famous still have the opportunity to emerge as candidates who get support.”
She said the goal of the party is to get more registered Republicans to get involved in the process through the caucus system rather than allow some who may not be supporters to impact the way the party selects its candidates.
“We think the presidential caucus is the ideal way to open up the process by coming up with new, innovative ways for (people) to participate,” she said.
Decision at odds with Mitt Romney plea
Saturday's vote came despite a plea just days ago from Mitt Romney, who won Utah's last presidential GOP primary election in 2012 with 93 percent of the vote. He said switching to the caucus system was "a bad decision" and strongly urged party leaders not to do it.
"Should that occur, tens of thousands fewer voters will participate in the process," Romney said, describing the switch as "indicative of an unfortunate pattern where party leadership seems to reject wide participation in favor of small groups of people making decisions for the rest of us."
In a letter sent to the governor, legislative leaders and the state party's chairman, Romney wrote, "Every Utah voter deserves to have their vote counted in the selection of the Republican Party's nominee for president in 2016."
The two-time candidate for the White House added that "having participated in presidential election processes nationwide, it is clear to me that the more citizens involved, the better the result."
But Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans said holding caucuses will attract more Utahns to take part in the state's unique system that gives delegates chosen at caucus meetings the power to nominate candidates at a convention.
"One of the most appealing things is we certainly will be able to educate the public on the caucus system," Evans said.
He and Mickelsen have suggested a GOP presidential caucus vote could be cast online, but she said that the process would have to be reviewed to ensure voter and ballot security.
Typically, caucus votes are cast at local meetings held on a designated caucus night. A primary election — which Republicans in Utah restrict to only those who are registered members of the party — allows votes to be cast by mail or through early voting as well as on Election Day.
Changes to presidential nomination
The caucus and convention system is set to change next year as a result of a compromise reached between lawmakers and organizers of the Count My Vote initiative, which would have replaced it with a direct primary.
Starting next year, candidates will be able to either go through the current nomination system or gather signatures to qualify for a spot on the primary ballot. The state GOP is suing over the deal made in SB54.
Next year, most presidential primaries and caucuses are expected to be held in March because of changes made by the Republican National Committee intended to shorten the primary season.
During the discussion prior to the Saturday resolution voting, the presidential caucus issue had been a point of contention for some who worried that many would-be GOP voters could feel left out of the political process.
“Presidential elections get people out to vote, even primary elections,” said Heber City resident Kim Powell. “I’ve known people who have been wiling to affiliate with the Republican Party for the purpose of being able to participate in presidential primary election. I’m worried that they will feel excluded.”
She said many voters are not familiar or comfortable with the caucus system and may choose to forego those meetings and not participate at all.
A bill setting March 22 as the date for a Utah presidential primary election next year — at a cost of $3 million — was passed out of a Utah House committee Thursday, following the letter from Romney. The bill's sponsor said the party can choose how it holds such an election.
The Utah Republican Party is currently battling the state in court over a compromise reached between lawmakers and backers of an initiative petition last year on the nominating process, saying the state shouldn't control party activities.
Currently, state law allows a separate presidential primary only in early February, too soon under the new rules adopted by the Republican National Committee.
Though he favored a presidential primary in Utah in 2016 to encourage candidates to pay attention to the state in the upcoming election, Gov. Gary Herbert said Saturday he was satisfied with the passage of the caucus resolution and supports making the process open to more prospective voters.
"We ought to do everything we can to get those who are going to lead our nation to stop by Utah," Herbert said, including holding the election the same day as other Western states to ensure focus on issues important to the region.
“We ought to work toward a regional primary” to have a stronger voice in the Intermountain West, he said.