Republican caucus attendees tout value of caucus system

One of many Republican caucus meetings held at Dixie High School, St. George, Utah, March 20, 2014 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – Republicans across the state gathered at their caucus meetings to choose state and county delegates and discuss matters important to them moving forward. One of the primary themes of the evening was the future of the caucus system in the wake of new legislation that, while keeping the caucus intact, also allows candidates to bypass the caucus and go on to a direct primary. Some have called the new dual-system a good compromise, while others fear it marks the beginning of the gradual death of the caucus system.

The caucus system: How it works

Utah has the pinnacle,” Roland Hunter said, referring to the state’s caucus system. “It’s the finest in the nation.”

Under the current system, neighborhoods across Utah are divided into caucus precincts that are individually numbered. Each precinct has a chair, vice chair and other officers voted on by precinct members. Precinct membership is made up of people who reside within the precinct area. While anyone can attend caucus meetings, in the case of the Republican caucuses, you need to be a registered party-member and 18 years old in order to participate.

Once precinct officers are selected, the precinct members then get to vote on who will represent their neighborhood’s interests as delegates at the county and state conventions held in April. Being a delegate is a two-year commitment. Outside of helping to choose candidates, delegates will also help tend to business within the party proper as needed.

We will elect representatives from our neighborhood,” Hunter said, adding that the caucus is a the epitome of a grassroots process.

Potential delegates are either nominated by their neighbors or are able to self-nominate if they choose. Once nominated, they are given a short time to tell the precinct their background and why they would make a good delegate. The precinct members then vote. Once delegates and alternates are picked, it now becomes the delegates’ job to represent their neighbors as they vet the various candidates who will now be contacting them.

In the caucus system, candidates, no matter what position they are running for, are required to visit with the delegates and hopefully gain their vote for the party nomination at the upcoming conventions. County candidates will meet with county delegates, and state candidates with state delegates.

Through the caucus system, we field the best,” Hunter said. “The cream rises to the top.”

The Washington County Republican convention is scheduled for April 12. The state convention is April 26. Between now and then the candidates will be sending information to the county and state delegates and meeting with them in person. Whoever the majority of the delegates – that being 60 percent or more – feel will represent them the best will win the Republican nomination for this or that position. If a single candidate does not receive 60 percent of the delegate vote, then a primary is held. The winner receives the party nomination and carries on to win or lose in the general election.

The Utah Republican Party has 4,000 state delegates, while the Utah Democratic Party sports around 2,700 state delegates. However, it has been estimated there will be in the area of 20,000 delegates overall between the two parties.

As with the Democratic caucus meetings Tuesday, attendance to the Republican meetings wasn’t as large as it was in 2012. Hunter attributed it to being at a low point in the election cycle when there aren’t many major races being run this year. Despite a lower turnout this year, numbers were still higher than the traditional average according to Deseret News.

Slow demise of the caucus system?

Last year the Count My Vote movement originally sought to do away with the caucus system and replace it with a direct primary. Instead of running the gauntlet of delegates, prospective candidates would be able to get their names on a ballot after garnering a required number of signatures related to the position they were running for. Count My Vote was presented to the public as a potential ballot initiative. In order to get it on the ballot though, it would require over 102,000 signatures from across the state.

Count My Vote supporters have argued the caucus system is archaic, exclusionary, and that delegates did not necessarily represent the will of the people with the candidates they choose. Some supporters have pointed to Sen. Mike Lee as an example of this.

The Count My Vote movement recently came to a halt with the passage of Utah’s  Senate Bill 54, the so-called Count My Vote compromise bill. Passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor, the bill preserves the caucus system, though with a few tweaks, while also opening the way for a candidate to bypass the caucus and shoot straight for a direct primary after getting enough signatures.

“I prefer the caucus system,” caucus attendee Jeff Layne said, “because I don’t trust politicians with money.”

Opponents of a direct primary are concerned the candidate with the most money will be able to buy his or her way through the election. They worry the candidate will be more accountable to campaign donors than the people.

The caucus does take the money out of the equation,” said Rep. Don Ipson, R-St. George, who attended a precinct meeting at Dixie High School Thursday night. Unlike some other caucus goers and fellow legislators, Ipson is fine with the compromise. He even joked that it must be a good compromise since supporters for both sides hate it so much.

“I really like the caucus system, it’s served us well,” he said, yet added the compromise reached with SB 54 could bring in more voter participation as well.

Under the new law, which takes effect in 2016, party-specific primaries will be opened to the state’s 660,000 unaffiliated voters. The Utah Republican Party has long-held closed primaries. Another change to the caucus system will allow for absentee ballots for delegates at the party’s state convention.

“Over time I hope people recognize the value of getting involved,” Ipson said.

At Precinct 86, in LaVerkin, St. George News contributor Leo Wright said caucus attendees were asking precinct officers many question about the SB 54. He said the general consensus was that attendees “hate it, but would rather have that than completely losing the caucus.”

Wright also said people who appeared to understand how the caucus system worked loved it, while those that did not understand how it worked hated it.

Hunter said that without the caucus system you’ll end up with Chicago-style politics.

Once the path for a direct primary becomes available in 2016, candidates have the option to take that route, stick with the caucus, or do both. Before SB 54 became law, Rep. Jon Stanard, of St. George, said it would possibly lead to the death of the caucus in a number of years. His sentiment was shared with some who some caucus attendees. Will people remain at passionate about the caucus system as they are now? Will candidates continue to see the caucus as a viable path to election in the future? Only time will tell as future elections come and go.

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Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.

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