Bob Bernick’s Notebook: How to Avoid the ‘Mack Truck’ of Election Reform

There will be a bill in the 2014 Legislature, now just 80 days away, that would place into law a dual-track political party primary candidate nominating system.

GOP state legislators, dominate in both the Utah House and Senate, would be smart to adopt it.


Here are the reasons why they won’t.

(And these very reasons are why Utah needs its citizen petition process, and why the Count My Vote initiative needs to pass.)

Utah’s Republican lawmakers will not adopt Rep. Kraig Powell’s dual-track candidate nomination bill because it would harm, to some extent, the conservative state GOP delegates.

No longer would the 4,000 delegates have total control over a statewide Republican candidate’s political future.

Some GOP candidates (and I’m guessing it would soon be the majority of those running for the Legislature, U.S. House seats and statewide offices) could bypass the conservative delegates altogether.

Powell, R-Heber City, likes the idea of a “dual-track” that would allow, at the candidate’s choice, those running for offices to gather a certain percent of the signatures of their party members in their district (or statewide for offices like U.S. Senate and governor).

Those candidates wouldn’t be seeking delegate support – for the delegates wouldn’t be voting on them in convention.

Those candidates wouldn’t send supporters to the March caucuses, asking them to run for delegate or to cast a ballot for a delegate candidate who would support the candidate in convention.

Those candidates wouldn’t be spending tens of thousands of dollars wooing their office’s delegates, trying to get them to vote for them in the party’s convention.

True, a candidate could, for any number of reasons – both political and financial – chose to go through the old caucus/convention process, hoping to be one of two candidates to come out of convention, or hoping to get 60 percent of the delegate vote and eliminate all other convention candidates for his office.

But no longer would a convention win mean you are your party’s nominee, or that you were one of two candidates going to the primary election.

There could be one, two, three or even more candidates who bypassed the caucus/convention process and now face you on your party’s ballot through the petition signature route.

The Count My Vote folks had been talking for 18 months about running a dual-track citizen initiative petition.

And many Utah politicos (including me) were surprised this summer when CMV leaders announced that after polling the public they were going to run a “clean” direct primary initiative.

Giving up on a dual-track idea, instead the CMV initiative would provide for only the candidate petition option: If a candidate could get 2 percent of his party’s registered voters (who cast a ballot in the last presidential election), then he would get on the primary ballot – as would any other candidate who met the same standard.

You can read the CMV petition here.

You could have two, three or 10 candidates on the primary ballot. And the one who got the most primary votes would be his party’s nominee for that office – even if the winner got less than 50 percent of the vote.

Under the initiative, there could still be caucuses, and delegates could still meet in convention in election years. The delegates could ask all the candidates to speak to them, and the delegates could officially endorse one or more candidates who would be – via the petition route – on the party’s primary ballot.

But the delegates couldn’t kick a current officeholder out of office by refusing to advance him or her to the primary. And they couldn’t winnow down a large field of candidates to one or two – both powers delegates currently hold.

GOP legislators in the 2014 general session would be smart to vote Powell’s “dual-track” bill into law.

That way, November voters would have a reason to vote against the CMV petition.

Proponents of the caucus/convention system – not surprisingly, mostly party loyalists who like being powerful delegates or like electing powerful delegates in the March party caucuses – could then say they have, through their elected House and Senate members, addressed the major issues of CMV without completely dumping the caucus/convention system.

Proponents of the status quo could argue that it would be wise to vote down the CMV on the November ballot and take a more moderate (although they wouldn’t use that loaded word) step toward election law reform in Utah.

Don’t junk a system that has served Utah well – the C/C proponents would say – just change it a bit.

But the leaders, legislators and diehards of the Utah GOP won’t seek the Powell compromise.

Like many Republicans in Congress today, Utah’s right wing simply believes they are, well, right.

You don’t compromise on principle. You stand firm.

Even if that means you are run over by the Mack truck of citizen-desired election reform.

Many GOP legislators may, in their hearts, like the idea of sidestepping the arch-conservative delegates every two or four years, and instead use their large campaign war chests – fed by generous special interest PAC money – to gather 2 percent of their voters’ signatures and flood their primary and/or general election opponents with cash and name I.D.

But you won’t see those incumbents voting for Powell’s bill.

No, that would be an insult to the very convention delegates those incumbent legislators will face in next spring’s party conventions.

How do you face 40 to 120 delegates (depending on whether you are running in a House or Senate district) in convention and tell them you voted to marginalize their power.

“I really like you guys. And I totally support your power to decide my political fate. But I felt I needed to vote for a bill that will allow more and more party candidates to bypass you completely – thumb their noses at you – as they go directly to a party primary. Sorry. Hope you’ll now vote for me.”

Nope. That ain’t going to fly.

So, as a citizen or special interest group that wants to make a change in Utah law, but can’t get the support of legislators – because they will never vote against their own personal political interests – then you have to go the citizen initiative route.

That is the exact reason Utah citizens need their initiative powers.

And that is the exact reason CMV should succeed.

The conservative (a word that means, in part, resistance to change) element of the Utah Republican Party wants to keep its stranglehold on the caucus/convention system.

Which, in turn, means GOP candidates must espouse archconservative views, even if those views are a minority among the general electorate.

And the GOP Establishment will threaten its Republican legislators with political extinction if they don’t back their one-minded, reform-resistance, delegate-power-forever, caucus/convention system.