Originally submitted to (but not published by) the Salt Lake Tribune:
Ever since our state legislature passed H.B. 220 (a.k.a., the “republic v. democracy bill”), I have tried to relegate it to the rubbish bin of political silliness. But it refuses to stay where I want to leave it, because H.B. 220 is a little bit more than political silliness. It is a small (and generally harmless) symptom of what I see as a much more troubling problem: an attitude of contempt for the average citizen voter among Utah’s elected representatives and political power players. We observed a startling example of this contempt in our legislature’s attempt to ram through H.B. 477 (a.k.a., the “GRAMA bill”) without public input and despite overwhelming public opposition. The attitude is also rather glaringly reflected in Matthew Carling’s recent defense of the Utah caucus system, “The Utah Caucus System: Anathema of Apathy.”
To Mr. Carling, the caucus system is the grassroots embodiment of our republican government—it is the way we protect our political heritage from those well intentioned but less enlightened. In theory, the caucus system:
- Allows voters to choose the informed and committed persons who will represent them in selecting a party candidate for a statewide election.
- Lowers the barrier that money and name recognition would pose for aspiring political candidates.
- Prevents the candidate selection process from devolving into attack ads and sound bytes.
- Results in the best slate of party candidates because delegates are able to meet with candidates and obtain a basis to make an informed decision.
But while the theory is straightforward, it is time to take a hard look at the realities of the caucus system in Utah. In reality, the caucus system:
- Compresses the candidate selection process for the average voter into a little more than two hours on a night when they may have other necessary commitments.
- Often results in a slate of candidates that are out of step with the majority of party members.
- Punishes incumbents who represent more than the fringe of their political party.
- Opens doors to strident campaigners without large political war chests, but at the cost of closing political doors for nearly everyone else.
- Results in the election of delegates who rarely seek to understand the viewpoints or opinions of their constituents, but are almost always already covert (or open) committed supporters of a particular candidate.
- Gives unjustified power to delegates who are no more enlightened than the general electorate and just as susceptible to sound bytes and political demagoguery.
- Allows a handful of delegates to determine the final results of statewide elections since there is no credible opposition threat in the general election.
- Allocates so much political power to so few that it is susceptible to corruption.
- Leaves candidates responsible to no more than a handful of strident political activists, thereby creating a breeding ground for comfortable contempt for average voters.
Far from being, as Mr. Carling suggests, the cure for voter apathy, Utah’s caucus system exacerbates the problem by creating a system in which almost all of Utah’s voters feel powerless to influence results.
It is true that we live in a republic. But it is a democratic republic. And absolute ideological disdain for democracy in all circumstances pushes republicanism over the line into guardianship, especially in a state so dominated by a single political party. Abraham Lincoln, our country’s first Republican President, recognized that the American government was “by the people” and “of the people” as well as “for the people.” Utah’s current caucus system is not, and we should be earnestly contemplating revisions or searching for alternatives.