Sunday, November 20, 2011

Reform Utah Politics?

Over the last 18 months I’ve seen a growing number of articles in newspapers promoting the idea that Utah’s caucus system is flawed and must be revised to prevent a variety of ills. I read another such article Saturday morning in editorial section of the Deseret News.

2010 Utah County Republican Nominating ConventionBefore I go over the assertions made in this article let’s quickly review how the caucus system functions in Utah. The state is divided into ~2,200 precincts. In March of each election year precinct meetings are held throughout the state for each political party in which precinct officers (chair, vice-chair, secretary and treasurer) and delegates (county and state) are elected for 2 year terms.

County and state delegates attend party nominating conventions where they have the opportunity to elect candidates to represent them in a general election. For any office if no candidate receives 60% or more of the vote then then the top 2 candidates compete in a primary election to be the party’s nominee.

Between the time delegates are elected and the nominating convention (about 2 months)  they are wooed by those seeking nomination for office. They receive phone calls, are invited to small meetings and  get lots of mail (electronic and physical). In short they are given many opportunities to interact with candidates, often in small groups or even one on one. Delegates end up spending hours of their own time to become informed about candidates.

Because of the limited number of voters (even for state office there are  only about 3,500 delegates) the amount of money a candidate needs to spend to reach them is nominal compared to the costs involved in a primary election. Thus the pool of candidates with a legitimate chance of winning is broadened.

With that “brief” introduction let’s review the assertions made in Saturdays editorial (Deseret News, Nov 20, pg. A13) regarding the current system.

  1. it discourages people from participating in the political process
  2. it “may” contribute to a disturbingly low vote turnout
  3. it make is hard for candidates to qualify for a primary election.
  4. caucus (precinct) meetings are vulnerable to manipulation
  5. caucus meetings are loosely controlled
  6. it empowers extremists
  7. it is too easily manipulated to exclude people

Quite frankly this piece like others I have read are heavy on innuendo but light on facts to back them up. Weasel words like “may” are used to provide cover for unsubstantiated claims but the the assertions are nonetheless expressed. Let’s talk about each in turn.

  1. Discourages people from participating

Voters have a chance to meet in small neighborhood groups to elect people they trust to do a thorough evaluation of the candidates for county and state offices. We live in a representative democracy. Caucus meetings  seem to me to be epitomize this.

Candidates for office don’t have do spend and arm and a leg and in most cases their biggest investment is time. I can’t for the life of me understand the assertion that people are discouraged from participating.

  1. May contribute to a lower voter turnout

Utah participation in presidential elections has declined 8 out of the last 11 times, starting in 1964. It has gone from 78.5% of voting age population to 50.5%. Nationally the decline over the same period of time was  from 61.9% to 56.8%. So why attribute the decline to a system that generated 78% turnout in 1964? Good question. I don’t have an answer for that.

A better guess would be to look at other activities reflective of public morals that declined or increased over the same period of time and try to draw a correlation. This could include church attendance, charitable contributions  … .

  1. Hard to qualify for primary

Is the goal to have a primary? Is it bad if we don’t have one? The caucus/convention system makes it easier for candidates to enter a race. It is less costly than a primary system and they have a chance to tell their full story to delegates. Thus the people casting votes are generally better informed about the candidates. If the delegates select a party’s candidate for any office during the convention by a super-majority (60%) then in my mind this is a better informed selection than a primary election where candidates are forced to spend money to get attention from an electorate that is largely disinterested in the first place (e.g. the highest percentage turnout in terms of registered voters in a primary election in Utah county since 1998 is 18%).

  1. Caucuses are vulnerable to manipulation

So let’s see someone thinks that it is easy to manipulate the outcome of ~2,200 meetings all held the same night and run by individuals selected by their friends and neighbors? If it was so easy then how did Senator Bennett lose his party’s nomination. He spent a lot of money (~$2M), more money than any candidate in the nomination process and still lost. Enough said!

  1. Caucus meetings are loosely controlled

Caucus meetings are subject to party rules and are managed well as far as I can tell. There are likely exceptions to this, after all everyone is a volunteer.  However,  what is the alternative? Have the meetings run by paid professionals? Now there is an opportunity for mass manipulation. We could eliminate the system entirely? I wonder if that is the objective?

  1. The system empowers extremists

To back up this claim the paper cites that fact the although women represent 55% of Republican voters they only represent 25% of the delegates elected. Additionally they noted that 81% of the delegates had lived in Utah for 20 years. I’m at a loss to explain how these two statistics demonstrate that caucus meetings are overly influenced by extremists. Could it be that fewer women attend caucus meetings for a variety of factors?  Could it be that those elected are those deemed to be more informed about local issues and therefore tend to be longer term residents.? Don’t know. Just asking.

The numbers came from a Dan Jones/Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll. Dan Jones conducted an Oct 18, 2010 election poll that showed Matheson leading Philpot 57% to 31%. The actual results were 51% to 46%. Dan Jones also had Tim Bridgewater leading Mike Lee in the primary elections  42% to 33%. Results? Mike Lee 51% Tim Bridgewater 49%. Hmmm … not that it matters but given the source do I really trust the numbers.

Bottom line on this issue is that the system favors those who are interested and want to participate. The meetings are open to all and anyone can attend. I was elected precinct chair the first time I ran and I had only lived here 7 years.

  1. It is too easily manipulated to exclude people

I don’t understand how a system that invites people to be involved and allows them to select representatives at a neighborhood level is exclusionary. Nor do I understand how a system that reduces the cost of running for office narrows the field of candidates. Yes, the ability for the media to influence results are diminished and the advantage a rich candidate has over one with less money is reduced. Perhaps it is exclusionary in that the number of voices outside of the candidate that can influence the election is reduced. Is that bad?

Utah has been lauded as being the best managed state by Pew Center and yet Deseret News makes the claim that our current system is flawed and they have “deep concerns” about it. Why change something that is working for us today. Do we want to be more like California?

Changing the current system benefits incumbents, candidates with money and those who wish to be able to influence voters en masse through media sound-bites rather than substance. I cherish the current system and see it as one of the few tools that enables citizens to fight entrenched power and big money (whatever the source). I hope we have the courage to maintain it.

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