Right On: Utah’s flawed caucus system

Photo by gustavofrazao/iStock/Getty Images Plus, also images from Wikimedia Commons, public domain, St. George News

OPINION — If you attended one of this year’s Republican caucuses, which candidate did your caucus choose for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination?

I’m not asking which of the 12 announced candidates you support but instead which candidate won your caucus vote?

With Utah’s Republican state nominating convention on April 21, that would seem like a fair question in most caucus states.

But not in Utah because Utah’s Republican Party leadership clings to an anachronistic and flawed caucus system for selecting nominees.

It’s time that the party came into the 21st century.

Utah today has a combination caucus/primary system. But that only came about in 2014 when the Legislature passed Senate Bill 54, a compromise with backers of the “Count My Vote” initiative that was likely to become law that fall.

The troglodytes in the state Republican Party leadership sued to overturn the Legislature’s compromise. Not satisfied after losing in federal court, they took the case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and lost again.

The party still holds caucuses to select the party’s “official” primary candidate, the one blessed by party officials. All other Republican candidates must gather signatures to get on the primary ballot.

So what’s wrong with Utah’s caucus system?

In most states with caucus systems, caucus participants openly show support for their favored candidates. They raise their hands or break into groups backing candidates. Delegates backing the winning candidates are then selected to represent the caucus at the party’s convention.

Not so with Utah’s flawed system dating to the 19th century, back when no one knew what was going on in far-off Salt Lake City.

The first order of business at my 2016 neighborhood caucus was selecting delegates to the county and state conventions. With multiple party candidates in the running for several offices, I expected to hear local advocates explain which candidates they supported and why.

Instead, right off the bat, the caucus chair asked for who would like to be a delegate. Several folks volunteered and were elected more or less by acclamation.

Which candidates did they support? Who knows? No questions were asked and no explanation was given.

To me, it was like sending a neighbor from the next block to pick an interior decorator for my house without knowing anything about my furniture or my color preferences.

Defenders of this system argue that by selecting delegates who are not committed to particular candidates, those vying for nominations “get out and talk to people, period. This levels the playing field for all candidates.”

But instead of leveling the playing field, this exposes a major flaw in Utah’s caucus system. All too often extreme candidates on the right or left are able to mobilize enough followers in enough caucuses to hijack a nomination.

BYU professors Christopher Karpowitz and Jeremy Pope addressed this phenomenon in a Cambridge University press paper. They found that “caucuses are more likely to select a more extreme nominee.”

Writing in a subsequent Washington Post article that used Utah Sen. Mike Lee as the poster child, these same professors explained that, “In terms of their willingness to take consistently conservative or liberal positions on the issues, caucus attendees look a lot more like members of Congress than they do average Republicans or Democrats.”

In other words, the caucus system contributes to hollowing out the political center. Unsurprisingly, we have recent examples in Utah.

In a special election last year to replace Republican Jason Chaffetz as one of Utah’s congressional representatives as well as in our 2016 gubernatorial election, GOP delegates picked candidates who were later trounced in primaries by more moderate candidates.

Washington County Democrats saw firsthand how special interests can hijack caucuses.

Lynn Cobb, county party secretary, relates that about 600 young people attended one 2016 Democratic caucus meeting because they wanted to elect a delegate supporting then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

“And then they disappeared and we never saw them again,” Cobb said.

Caucus proponents argue that candidates must spend big to win primaries, making them beholden to their donors. They claim caucuses allow low-budget candidates to connect directly with the public. But it’s not the public that candidates connect with; all too often it’s issue-oriented delegates who have their own agendas.

Gov. Gary Herbert points out that, “We end up having candidates that spend a ton of money to try to stack the delegates. That’s not how the system was designed to be.”

Organizers of this year’s retooled “Count My Vote” initiative have decided they can live with the combo system. We’ll be asked to vote this fall on their proposal lowering the number of signatures needed to get on the primary ballot. If you support low-budget candidates, vote “yes.”

It’s time for Republican Party leaders to stop fighting primary elections in the courts and in the Legislature and to recognize that their cherished caucus system does not reflect the will of the people of Utah.

Count my vote. And while it doesn’t happen often, that’s something that my fellow opinion columnist, liberal Ed Kociela and I agree on.

Howard Sierer is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: hsierer@stgeorgeutah.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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25 Comments

  • PogoStik April 19, 2018 at 3:34 pm

    What difference does it make? They are all right-wing Republicans. Not like we have a diversity of ideas to choose from here.

    • John April 19, 2018 at 5:43 pm

      It’s better than letting clueless left wing democrats make decisions. Don’t like it here , move to California!

      • No Filter April 20, 2018 at 8:34 am

        Like it or not Lumpy, the more they build, the more people from California will come and one day St. George may be to liberal for the likes of you. Far Right wing conservatives are a dying breed and will likely see their demise along with the baby boomers. We will still have conservatives, but they will be more center leaning and more likely to agree with their democratic co-workers in congress than they do today. The world is changing and it’s a matter of get on the bus or be left behind. Our mid-term elections will be huge this year. The fact that so many republican congressman are retiring or choosing not to run for re-election shows that they are scared of what is coming. No one can predict if the so called blue wave will happen, but one thing is for sure the tide is shifting. Thank you Donald Trump for showing us just how bad our country has become. You brought out the worst in us and now it is time to redeem ourselves in 2018 and beyond.

        • John April 20, 2018 at 9:28 am

          My BS filter works, You are clueless! you don’t know me or my political leanings Shirley. Go get some more of that recreational pot from Mesquite and continue your whine and cheese party. Hahahahahahahaha!

          • No Filter April 20, 2018 at 12:29 pm

            I know you way better than you think Lumpy, your words tell us so much about you. You leave us little hints to your political leanings and beliefs in every comment you make. You are easier to read than a children’s book. Even your personal life comes out in your comments (Don’t worry I won’t tell anyone your secrets). Your best bet is to keep to your childish comments and make us laugh like a jester to his king.

          • John April 20, 2018 at 2:26 pm

            hahaha, little girl.. What’s your pointless point this time? You are still clueless, BTW, I did flush, you just kept floating back up, that means you have no substance. nobody asked you anyway ! No, you don’t know anything about me little girl ! But I know you ! hahahahahahaha!

          • Striker4 April 21, 2018 at 10:14 am

            Oh oh cry baby Johnboy got his pretty pink panties in a knot

        • 556poor April 20, 2018 at 3:27 pm

          I wouldn’t be so sure about the California thing I’m from California and about as far right as you can get along with a lot of others I know from there also. There’s a reason we left and its not to make Utah into the same commie hell hole we got out of.

          • John April 20, 2018 at 5:45 pm

            No filter can only comment what she is told to say by the MSM. Her BS filter is broken. Never anything useful and always crying about something. In fact , probably the biggest crybaby out of all the commy liberal commenters on here.

  • jaybird April 19, 2018 at 8:44 pm

    As usual the john follows the other sheep in this state. Someone needs to flush you.

    • John April 20, 2018 at 9:53 am

      Grow up little girl! Nobody asked you.

      • Striker4 April 21, 2018 at 10:16 am

        grow up ? lol. you should follow your advice

        • John April 21, 2018 at 12:56 pm

          So many liberals who can never present a rational thought. The programming is strong on these sheep ! It’s not my fault they are clueless. I just merely point it out, cockroaches hate being exposed by the light as evidenced by their moronic posts. hahahahahahahaha!

  • Loyal Opposition April 19, 2018 at 10:47 pm

    Almost everything that said in this article is either completely false or else completely misleading. I ran to be a delegate and clearly explained who I supported and why. After our short speeches, each delegate candidate was questioned. I can’t help if you were too shy to question your candidates. The delegates spend hours and hours meeting with the candidates for office gathering even more information about which will serve best. It takes more than just put on a pair of jeans, a crooked smile, and a lot of money to represent the people of Utah. Some feel they can swoop into the state, send out there signature gatherers, pay for a lot of expensive ads and snooker the sheep of Utah into doing what they want. Others, on the other hand, go out and meet with each delegate, explain their position clearly, and win the support of the representative of that district. I met with candidates for office in my district. Which do the citizens of Utah want? Do they want to be convinced by how good looking a candidate appears on an expensive television ad, or a local person who is willing to put in lots of time with individual delegates and show why they are the best candidate? I urge you to support the group “Keep My Voice”, and help Utah keep its representative democracy alive with the repeal of 54.
    Tomorrow, I will head to West Valley City to assist in the Republican Convention. How many other people from St. George, Kanab, Hurricane, Nephi, Milford, and the other towns of Utah are willing to make the same sacrifice of time and effort. You don’t have to be a delegate to be there and make a difference. I’m NOT a state delegate. Will YOU (hsierer, the author of this article) be there with me? I kind of doubt it. This country has existed for over 200 years with a democratic republic as our form of government. It has served us well. Let’s keep it that way.

    • PatriotLiberal April 20, 2018 at 9:18 am

      Wow. You sound like a PSA for the caucus system. I don’t care how much work the candidates do with YOU. As far as I am concerned, YOU should not be able to cast MY VOTE vote for me.

      • John April 20, 2018 at 9:45 am

        Want some cheese to go with that whine?

        • Striker4 April 21, 2018 at 10:17 am

          Hey cry baby you some cheese to go along with those tide pods you’re eating

        • John April 21, 2018 at 1:48 pm

          You are the only one doing any crying, el cucaracha! hahahahahaha!

  • PatriotLiberal April 20, 2018 at 7:44 am

    I agree Sierer. The caucus convention system is an absolute joke. I attended a Republican caucus this year with my fiance There was maybe 10-12 people in a small room. That’s 10-12 people out of 350 (we were told) registered Republicans in my precint. I was not surprised though, Utah’s voter turnout over the last couple of cycles has been abysmal, in the low teens at some points. It’s truly horrifying how many people in this state take the right to vote for granted.

    The president of our particular meeting had to BEG people to be delegates and hold “office” in the caucus. There were 5 “offices” available. It took this guy 10-15 minutes per office to convince 1 person to “run”. With 2 exceptions, those who volunteered were ushered in without 1 question asked or word spoken about what they would do, how they would vote or even why they decided to volunteer. The two exceptions were one woman who said that she vote objectively (yeah right) and one man who answered my question about how he would plan this city differently if he was in charge (He spent his speech ragging on city officials).

    Answer me this, Why should I give my vote to another person as the caucus system would have me do?

  • John April 20, 2018 at 9:01 am

    Why are you always blaming someone else for your problems? The system needs participation for it to work, not whiners crying about why it doesn’t! YAWN!

  • DB April 20, 2018 at 4:20 pm

    Sorry, but I’m thinking that the GOP is in for a ‘shellacking’ (to quote a former President) in November. Not in Utah, of course. The more Trump tweets, the worse it will be.

    • John April 20, 2018 at 5:25 pm

      Yawn !

      • Striker4 April 21, 2018 at 10:19 am

        Awwww what a shame your pretty pink panties got ruffled

        • John April 21, 2018 at 1:10 pm

          hahahahaha!! crybaby!

        • John April 21, 2018 at 1:41 pm

          those are your mothers panties that are ruffled.. she gave birth to you !

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