A new report on Utah’s nominating system

Do Utah’s election laws and practices allow “full opportunity” for people to become candidates and for “voters to express their choice?”

This is a guest post by Morgan Lyon Cotti, Senior Research Analyst at the Utah Foundation.

Utah Foundation released a report today titled, “Nominating Candidates: The Politics and Process of Utah’s Unique Convention and Primary System.” It examines the history of Utah’s nominating process to understand how, and especially why, the current process developed. One of the major findings of the report is how unique Utah’s system is. No other state allows parties to preclude a primary if a candidate for major statewide or congressional office receives enough delegate votes. As we studied this process, we also considered how “democratic,” it is…does it give full access to those who want to participate? In Section 20A-9-401 of the Utah State Code, it states, “This part shall be construed liberally so as to ensure full opportunity for persons to become candidates and for voters to express their choice.” Do Utah’s election laws and practices allow “full opportunity” for people to become candidates and for “voters to express their choice?”

Would a different system increase “full opportunity” to become a candidate? Under Utah’s current nominating process, the top two vote-getters in convention proceed to the primary. If a candidate garners 60% of delegate votes, he or she is declared the nominee and proceeds directly to the general election. What if Utah’s system were changed to be more like other states, for instance, like neighboring New Mexico, which has a 20% threshold to continue to the primary? With the available data, we know that if Utah had a 20% threshold system, at least five more primary elections would have taken place since 2002. In 2010, for example, there would have been a Republican primary between Gary Herbert and Daniel Van Oaks, Jr., and also a primary battle between Morgan Philpot and Neil Water in the 2nd House district. In addition, four primaries would have had more than two candidates. Looking again at 2010, the Republican Senate primary would have featured Bob Bennett in addition to Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater. Archival research also shows that in the 1930s and 1940s when Utah had a direct primary, many primary elections had more than two candidates.

Would a more open system increase voter turnout? Political scientists argue that the structure of the voting system can either hinder or induce voter turnout. In general, states that eliminate barriers to voting and allow election-day registration and hold open primaries have higher voter turnout. States that have stricter laws have lower voter turnout. Historically, Utah had relatively high voter turnout rates, but the rates have consistently declined in recent decades to near or below the national average. It is not clear why Utah’s voter turnout has declined, but restrictive voter laws and non-competitive races may be strong factors.

Would a more open system have policy implications? Research has shown that strong constituencies can have a significant effect on the behavior of leaders. If these findings are applied to Utah’s political system, this may signify that elected leaders are more focused on making policies supported by party delegates, rather than their larger constituencies. Especially since in many Utah races, it’s a foregone conclusion that the Republican nominee will win, due to local dominance of Republican voter registration and voting patterns. In these cases, the “real” election is at the spring convention, when a candidate must appeal to delegates for the party’s nomination. It seems quite clear that if the delegates are the deciding body, candidates will shape their actions to continue to appeal to those delegates for future re-election. Since the views and priorities of delegates can be quite different from other party members or the general public, this is problematic for representative government. For example, at the 2010 Republican Convention, 75% of the delegates were men, which is clearly non-representative of Utah’s population. If Utah’s system were reformed so that a broader array of voters had greater power and influence, policy decisions by elected officials would likely be different, intended to appeal to a wider constituency.

This is a guest post by Morgan Lyon Cotti, Senior Research Analyst at the Utah Foundation.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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