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Political parties in Utah should be free to select their candidates for office according to the will of the party members. The State of Utah and its Legislature should not have authority to interfere in the selection of those party representatives. However, when comparing the impact of each process, the caucus/convention process is a better method for selecting candidates than a direct primary.
When I ran for the city council in 2009, I was a political outsider. I knew one member of the city council, I did not know the mayor, and I was not connected to any of the political influencers in the city. But, I had issues I cared about, and I was willing to work hard.
Despite nine candidates running in that election, I won because of the strength of my ideas and my work ethic. Similarly, the caucus/convention process allows anyone to get elected who has good ideas and who is willing to work hard.
There are just over 11,000 registered Republicans in Legislative District 20. In the caucus/convention process, those 11,000 voters meet in individual caucuses to select delegates. Those delegates then select candidates at the county convention. It is not practical for candidates to meet with all 11,000 Republicans in this district, but it is possible to meet with every one of the delegates, to have meaningful conversations about important issues with them, and ultimately, to be judged by their merits.
Because the number of delegates selected at the caucus are limited, the cost of meeting every one of them is reasonable. Candidates with good ideas and limited funding have an equal chance of being selected as the candidates with wealth or special interest funding. Ultimately, the best candidates are chosen and prepare to face challengers from other parties in the fall.
In a direct primary, candidates are not required to meet with voters face-to-face. To get on the ballot, they are required to gather signatures with a petition. Signing a petition does not constitute an endorsement, and the number of signatures required discourages meaningful discussion as signatures are gathered.
A direct primary encourages the use of third party signature gatherers. In fact, an entire industry has sprung up around gathering political signatures in Utah. A wealthy candidate can hire a disinterested company to gather their signatures; pricing can vary for this service, but I have heard that the rate is around $6 per signature. For the House of Representatives, a wealthy candidate, or one funded by special interests can pay $6,000 and ensure themselves a place on the ballot. There isn’t a review of their experience or views on important issues; Signature gathering is simply purchasing a place in our democracy.
After signatures are gathered and the primary campaigning begins, the distance between the candidate and the voter widens. Candidates court the electorate with mailers and pre-recorded phone messages. Large signs are purchased, and prominent space is rented for their display. Because the candidates must connect with 11,000 individuals instead of a smaller number of delegates, large amounts of money are spent and the opportunity for discussion is wasted.
Under the direct primary process, elected officials are ultimately selected based on the strength of their financial backing, and the quality of their graphic designers, not the quality of their ideas.
I believe strongly in the power of representative democracy. I prefer candidates with bold ideas over candidates that only have big pocketbooks. I believe that the process of candidate selection that “levels the playing field” and gives anyone a chance at political service is the caucus/convention system.