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What To Do With Utah’s Caucus System?

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What To Do With Utah’s Caucus System?

I held off for as long as I could, folks.   Really.  I’ll try to be intelligent about this, I promise.

What to do with Utah’s caucus system?

Get rid of it altogether?  Reform it?  Create an alternate path such as Count My Vote?  There are certainly lots of suggestions out there.  And whether you’re a member of the Utah Republican Party State Central Committee, a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent, chances are that you’re going to be asked to weigh in on the issue soon (even if only through signature gathering).

So, if you haven’t already done so, it’s time to ask yourself (before your overly inundated with all the rhetoric)– what to do?

Before we get too fired up about all changing it or keeping it, we should stop and ask ourselves, “just what is it that we’re trying to accomplish, here”?  After all, look before you leap, and all that, right?

So, in the spirit of true altruism, let me set out three principles that I think should guide your consideration of the issue.  And then, in the spirit of the truly self-absorbed blogger, let me offer you my unsolicited opinion on the application of those principles. :)

PART 1: Some Guiding Principles.

First, the (hopefully) helpful part.

Principle #1:  The caucus system should be regarded and evaluated for what it actually is, which is a means of selecting party candidates for general elections, and not as a political strategy tool for undermining Tea Party Crazies or The Establishment.

Principle #2:  The caucus system shouldn’t be changed or maintained in response to any political result.  Regardless of what you think of Mike Lee and Bob Bennett, the result of the 2010 Utah Senatorial election shouldn’t continue to determine Utah’s candidate selection process.

Principle #3:  The candidate selection process has obvious real world consequences with respect to voter participation and engagement, candidate access to political office, campaign strategy and issue presentation, and even freedom of association (poor Utah Democrats . . . they’re caught in the crossfire yet again).  Changes to the candidate selection process should be made such that the chosen system aligns with individual priorities on these issues.

So, when you’re thinking about what you want to do with the caucus system, I encourage you to think about proposed alternatives not in terms of Grassroots v. Party Elite, or Tea Party v. Establishment, but in terms of what you prioritize in a candidate selection system and whether the caucus system (or the proposed reforms) aligns with what you think is important.

PART 2: My Opinion.

Now, without further ado, let me offer you one well-considered (I think, anyway!) opinion. :)

I think a candidate selection system should, first and foremost, encourage voter participation and engagement and provide each voter a meaningful opportunity to weigh in with respect to candidate selection.  I think it should ensure that a meaningful opportunity to seek public office is available to all willing to work hard and serve.  I think it should foster rather than discourage accountability of an elected official to the people within his or her electoral district.  I think, as a general matter, it should result in the selection of a candidate whose views are consistent with the majority of party members within his or her district.  The system should, where possible, be dictated internally by the party rather than imposed from the outside.  Getting the “best candidates” isn’t something that’s on my list — because it’s impossible to determine and is a convenient excuse for undermining the prior priorities.

My one or two regular readers know that I haven’t been shy about criticizing what I see as the problems with the caucus system for selecting party candidates.  But those same people know that my stance has moderated recently in light of the 2012 caucuses — due in no small measure to the effort the state parties (especially the GOP) put into education and getting people out in 2012.

So, while I’m not the pure opponent of the caucus system that I have previously been, I’m still an advocate for reform.

Here’s why.

And let me say, before I begin, that I’m under no illusion that there’s a perfect system for selecting candidates.  There’s good and bad to any system.

Pros and Cons.

Here’s what the caucus system does well:

(1)  It provides nearly unparalleled access to office for political candidates who are willing to work hard and connect with delegates.  How does it do this?  In two ways.  First, by shrinking the constituency so that candidates don’t need money or widespread name recognition to reach voters.  Second, by dangling a low 60 percent primary avoidance threshold in front of candidates.  Thus, instead of a new candidate having to convince, say, 18,000 voters house district voters in a primary election, under the caucus system a candidate need only convince 50 or so delegates (60 percent of 80 delegates) whose names, addresses, and telephone numbers are provided to the candidate by the state party free of charge.  If they do that, they don’t face a primary.  The only necessary investments to avoid a primary are a website, lots and lots of time, and a few dozen yard signs for the state convention booth.  That’s a big win for challengers, and it really sets Utah apart.

(2) It does a good job of focusing campaigns on issues.  If you’ve ever been in a meeting between candidates and delegates, you know that the delegates will grill the candidates on significant issues.  There is hardly a candidate in Utah who skates through convention on the basis of a smile and radio spots without being challenged on the issues.  That’s a positive thing, even if only a few people ever get to hear the issues discussed.

And here’s what it doesn’t do well:

(1)  It marginalizes non-delegate voters.  There are about 600,000 registered Republicans in Utah.  There are approximately 4,000 state delegates.  In many instances, the Republican candidate for the general election is being chosen by 2,400 (60%) of those delegates, which is .4 percent of the registered Republicans in the the state (or, if you prefer .8 percent of a majority of the registered Republicans in Utah).  And we all know that Democrats do not win statewide general elections.  The role of the average voter is limited to voting once every two years on a caucus night they might not be able to attend due to entirely legitimate reasons . . . such as staffing a hospital, or a fire station, responding to a work emergency, or tending to sick children.  Yes, the can always contact their representative, but the whole idea of democracy — and even a Republic, for that matter, my Utah friends — is that a person will have a chance to weigh in directly at some point prior to when a matter is a foregone conclusion.

(2)  It defines constituencies in ways inconsistent with political responsibility.  Under the caucus system, especially in a dominant party state, delegates become the constituency of the candidates.  They are, in a meaningful sense, the only people to whom the candidates are responsible.  And so political accountability becomes ever less coextensive with political responsibility.  An elected official is responsible for representing all the voters — Republican, Democrat, and Independent — in his or her electoral district.  But under the caucus system, the candidate is only meaningfully accountable to a handful of delegates.  While it’s true that, especially in every “safe” electoral district, a candidate is only politically accountable to 50-60 percent of the voters, the caucus system makes matters worse by orders of magnitude.  It is too often the case in Utah where an elected official is punished (or is worried about being punished) for actually representing the views of a majority of his or her voting constituents.  This turns the concept of accountability on its head.

(3)  It is too focused on avoiding primary elections.  As currently constituted, Utah’s caucus system might also be referred to as the “primary avoidance system.”  Supporters of the caucus system don’t like political primaries.  And who can blame them?  They’re expensive, issue-light affairs that often devolve into attack ads and embarrass party members.  But too much focus on avoiding primaries only exacerbates the caucus system’s problems with respect to voter engagement and accountability — and, importantly, puts up barriers to meaningful reform.  After all, even a modest change from the 60 percent threshold is rejected out of hand because it would result in a number of more primaries each year.  Even efforts to increase voter participation at caucus night are viewed with skepticism because they almost certainly would make primaries more likely.

(4)  The caucus system can be manipulated by money, and in a more potentially disquieting way.  We have learned during the last 3 years is that the Utah’s caucus system can be manipulated by anyone — the monied old guard as well as young, poorly-financed up and comer.  Just as Mike Lee “gamed” the caucus system by drumming up grass roots delegate support prior to caucus night, Orrin Hatch “gamed” the system by putting in place an impressive (and impressively well-financed) long game strategy of his own the minute he observed Bennett’s fate.  And, folks, there’s no denying it — that a major reason Orrin was able to “game” the system the way he did was because he had tons of cash to spend to pay staffers to recruit and train delegates.  And make no mistake, Mike Lee is raising money right now to pursue a Hatch strategy on caucus night 2016.  If this now becomes the norm, we might well ask ourselves whether we’ve substituted the sound bytes and attack ads of a primary election for something that might seem uncomfortably close to a (relatively benign) form of machine politics . . . .

Some closing observations.

(1) I’d like to see the system reformed.  Although I was once leaning toward abandoning the system in favor of a direct primary, I no longer feel that way.  I would like to see the system persist, with reform.  The caucus system as currently constituted is a bad fit for a dominant party state like Utah, but it could be made better.  Specifically, I would like to see the primary threshold raised to 70 percent.  I would like to see permanent efforts to encouraging participation on caucus night, perhaps by allowing for other means of voting and/or attendance.  And I would like to see real efforts made by the party to help the delegates understand their obligation to be accountable to their neighbors and to keep them informed.  The party should give delegates contact information for their neighbors so that they can send emails.  They should encourage communication.  They should discipline delegates who abuse the privilege by campaigning.  A reformed caucus system would focus on encouraging voter turnout and participation, while still providing meaningful opportunities to candidates of all types without punishing elected officials for representing their constituents.

(2) I’m not a fan of the Count My Vote proposal.  To me it seems to be about specific candidates and not about the principles that should drive our candidate selection system.  The Count My Vote proposal is designed to prevent another incumbent from being “Bennetted,” at convention by giving someone with money to spend and name recognition a way to get on the ballot after failing in convention.  While I suppose it technically expands voter choice, it really just expands candidate options

(3) Reform or Be Reformed.  But if the Utah Republican Party won’t undertake reforms on its own, it will be stuck with something like Count My Vote.  Delegates are not doing themselves or the caucus system any favors by refusing to consider reforms and making things personal with The Establishment.  Delegates may want to reconsider their tendency to dismissively refer to opponents of the caucus as “party elites.”  This is, after all, supremely ironic since these delegates are the very definition of Utah’s political elite who have (generally) thus far steadfastly resisted any effort to diminish their sway of Utah politics.

My sense is that both caucus reform and more party diversity are coming to Utah.  They could and should go really well together.  But if the Utah GOP continues to resist reform, I’m afraid we’ll be left with a much less desirable alternative.


About Curt Bentley

is an attorney practicing commercial litigation, non-profit law, and intellectual property law in Utah at his firm Bentley Briggs & Lynch. In his spare time, he attempts to impersonate a jazz pianist, gardens, and dodges rattlesnakes and stirs up other trouble while running on Utah's amazing trails.

You can learn more or connect with Curt on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Feel free to use or re-post content with proper attribution.

  • Daniel Burton

    A couple thoughts, in no particular order, coherence, or weight:

    –Your comment that the caucus system is easily manipulated by money seems to belie your other comment that the caucus system is more easily accessible to those without money. It also seems to conflict with the point that primaries are likely to be manipulated by those with money. Note that your own example, about Mike Lee, is only superficially supported by the evidence. Mike Lee nearly lost at convention to a much less monied opponent–Tim Bridgewater. Everyone seems to forget that because in the end Lee did win the primary–but only after outspending Bridgewater in early television advertising and incurring campaign debt. Rather than an argument against the caucus, this seems to be an argument about the danger of money in a primary.

    –Your point about voter marginalization by the caucus is well taken. Have you seen the poll done by the Libertas Institute of non-voters, attempting to plumb why many do not vote? It raises a lot of questions in my mind about the real reason people don’t vote, and while I think the caucus may be part of it, I don’t think it is the root of it.


    • Curt Bentley

      “Your comment that the caucus system is easily manipulated by money seems to belie your other comment that the caucus system is more easily accessible to those without money.”

      Yeah, that’s the most tenuous of the points, I think. And I know that Lee almost lost in convention — but the larger point is that Bennett was eliminated. And my example with respect to manipulation was less about Mike Lee and more about Orrin Hatch this past cycle. I mentioned Mike Lee because I think we’ll see him follow Orrin’s strategy in 2016 — i.e., raise a lot of money and use it to build an organization to try and ensure victory at convention. I was just trying to acknowledge that the caucus system, like a primary election, is susceptible to manipulation by candidates with money, and that, in some ways, it’s potentially more troubling to me. That said, it also has some significant benefits, which I tried to acknowledge.

      “Have you seen the poll done by the Libertas Institute of non-voters, attempting to plumb why many do not vote?”

      I have seen the Libertas poll. It’s quite interesting, and it adds some data to a heretofore pretty much rhetorical conversation. I agree with you that the caucus system is not at the root of Utah’s issues with voter turnout.

      Ultimately, what I’d like to see are some marginal reforms, and a lot of commitment to making the process better, which, as you know, is a ways from where I was 2 years ago . . . . :)


      • Daniel Burton

        It would be nice if we could come up with a way to affect sentiments of civic virtue of all Americans…I’m starting to think that all the reforms in the world won’t matter if our path towards complete apathy continues.


  • MrDavidMiller


    Can you share a link to the Libertas poll? I haven’t seen it.


  • utah_1

    f you are going to run as a Democratic candidate, you have to comply with their rules. If you are going to run as a Republican, you have to comply with their rules. If you want to run and not have those rules, you can run as an unaffiliated or independent, or run as a 3rd party candidate. “Count My Vote” is attempting to change all party rules by changing state laws by initiative, thus bypassing the political parties and the Legislature.

    We already have a “bypass” system. It is called filing as an unaffiliated candidate. You go straight to the general election. So if Mr. Jowers, or Mr. Leavitt don’t think they can win if vetted by average citizens asking one on one questions. They can run that way and spend
    the money. Why should they be a party nominee if they are going to bypass the party?

    There were about 120,000 republicans in Utah that went to the neighborhood caucus elections in 2012 to elect the 4000 State Delegates.Add to those numbers the democrats and the primary elections. Certainly the municipal elections didn’t do any better in voter representation.

    Bypassing the Caucus / Convention System will NOT create more participation. There are 4000 state delegates that spend countless hours vetting candidates to be on the ballot. They are selected by those that attend the neighborhood election caucus meeting. You just have to attend.

    The Caucus System in Utah is the best way to make sure a grass roots process can work over large amounts of money.

    When people realize this “Count My Vote initiative will give them less of a chance to participate but give media and power brokers more power, they will not sign any initiative. This is a power grab by Lobbyists, and those that want to run for office but don’t believe they can win if vetted by average citizens asking one on one questions.

    The present system does not protect the incumbent, the wealthy or the famous.

    Keep fair elections in Utah.


    • Curt Bentley

      Thanks for commenting, Fred.

      I appreciate your passion on this issue.

      Some responses:

      My post makes clear that I don’t favor the “Count My Vote” proposal, either. But I’m afraid there’s a real chance it’s what we’ll get because the SCC steadfastly resisted all caucus system reform, even modest forms that make sense.

      Comparing turnout in municipal elections with turnout on caucus night is meaningless — too asymmetrical.

      I set out my reasons why the caucus system marginalizes voters in the post. A marginalized voter is one who is excluded from participation at some level. While the underlying (and principal) problem is voter apathy, reforms designed to make caucus participation easier, to keep people engaged, and to not make it too easy to bypass a primary make sense to me and would encourage participation. I understand you disagree.

      I agree that the caucus system helps candidates without a lot of name recognition and money. I also agree it provides unparalleled opportunities for involvement by delegates. But there are tradeoffs as I set out above that counsel for moderate reform.


      • utah_1

        The SCC didn’t vote down improvements, just some of the ones that wouldn’t improve it. Same with the Delegates. Two suggestions to improve the caucus were submitted for Sat. but not on the agenda. We get to determine if we like a proposal we don’t know enough about.

        We could make sure that neighborhood caucus meetings could be done in
        two hours, and the election results distributed not just to the county and state parties, but to those who missed the caucus, so they can learn who represents them and who to contact to make their views known. Any person who got a babysitter for two hours to attend a caucus meeting should be able to vote within that time frame.

        We need to coordinate with college and university campuses in Utah so students know where their caucus meeting is, and where Utah residents can register to attend and participate.


  • utah_1

    Mike Lee “gamed” the caucus system ? The delegates didn’t pick him for the nominee.

    re: Sen. Bennett in 2010. He was not in the top 2 coming out of convention. In fact the more moderate Tim Bridgewater was selected by 57% of the delegates in the last round. Mike Lee managed to get 43% and make it to a primary. Sen. Bennett endorsed Tim Bridgewater during the primary, but with voters ticked at TARP and ObamaCare, they went with Mike Lee.


    • Curt Bentley

      Yeah, he did. I don’t fault Mike Lee for using the caucus system to his advantage. So did Tim Bridgewater. So did Orrin Hatch in 2012. The underlying point is that Bennett was ousted at convention which never would have happened in a primary.


      • utah_1

        Sen. Bennett losing was a good thing. I gave him a replacement version for the Senate for Cap & Trade. It was better than the mess the house passed. It was similar to what had passed Utah with no one voting against it. He picked it up like a dead fish and said they didn’t want to do anything until 2012 when the GOP would rule. He had been there too long. Good man, but the delegates saw it.