News Analysis: A Political System for a Select Few?

News Analysis: A Political System for a Select Few?


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SALT LAKE CITY -- There was a time in Utah when people worried the infrastructure for representative government was collapsing. The system for nominating candidates for public office was dominated by a select few, who could virtually name the next legislator or county commissioner by a simple tap on the shoulder.

When exactly was that time? Take your pick. It was then, and it is now.

"Then" was the period in which powerful party "bosses" ruled the system. They were kingmakers, and a candidate for important office couldn't emerge from a convention without their nod.

To thwart the bosses, a system of mass-meetings or "caucuses" was created to feed delegates to party conventions, theoretically opening up the system to all motivated citizens.

Now, the bosses have been replaced by the well-organized soldiers of the ideological fringes of both major parties who have learned how to work the caucus system. As a result, candidate selection in Utah is once again in the hands of a select few.

Those who worry about the consequences of such consolidation of power advocate use of a direct primary system in which each party would post a slate of potential candidates for voters to narrow down. Thirty-eight states do it that way. Seven other states use a combination of primaries and caucuses. Utah is nearly alone in its reliance on only caucuses and conventions.


Most disturbing is the prospect that the current system is creating mass apathy among the majority of eligible voters who have come to accept the reality that their influence over who gets to run for office is limited, if not eliminated.

Recently, some party and legislative leaders have been whispering about whether it's time for a change. The conversation may arise in the context of the ongoing process to redesign the state's legislative and congressional districts to accommodate population changes identified by the 2010 census.

Candidate selection is not the province of the Redistricting Commission -- that's for the political parties to decide -- but it may come up in discussions simply because the commission is dealing with the subject of representative government.

There's a lot of debate on the caucus system after it was used last year to boot Sen. Bob Bennett from his incumbency. On one hand, it was a sterling example of how citizens can mobilize and be self-empowered to the point of knocking a three-term senator off the convention dais. On the other hand, it may have also been a textbook case of how the nominating system can be overtaken by a well-organized contingent whose views are not necessarily in sync with the party or the population as a whole.

Polling showed the delegates to the 2010 Republican Convention tended to be more conservative than most registered Republicans, while delegates to the Democratic Convention leaned more liberal than their fellow party members. Polling also revealed a disparity between the delegates and the general electorate on prioritizing specific issues.

Most disturbing is the prospect that the current system is creating mass apathy among the majority of eligible voters who have come to accept the reality that their influence over who gets to run for office is limited, if not eliminated.

In decades past, Utah was among the nation's leaders in voter turnout. Now, in some categories, we are dead last. In the 2010 elections, among people ages 18-30, Utah had the lowest turnout in the nation. If younger voters are opting out now, what does that forecast for representative government going forward?

Is there a connection between the trend toward lower voter turnout and the ascendancy of a single dominating political party in Utah? Utah's voter turnout rate once hovered in the 60 percent-plus range. Last year, barely a third of eligible voters took to the polls -- a lower turnout than in 47 other states.

Political scientists may debate the reasons behind the trend. What is not debatable is that people elected to public office are generally most responsive to their core constituencies -- a group in Utah that is getting smaller and smaller.

Email: cpsarras@ksl.com

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