Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why Rush to Make Fundamental Changes in Utah’s Political System?

Utah: 2012 Best State for BusinessUtah leads the nation in volunteerism  and charitable giving by significant margins [1]. Forbes awarded Utah the best state for business in 2012 for the third straight year [2] and the best state in the nation for debt management in 2009 [3]; The Pew Center in a 2008 report which graded the states indicated that they consider Utah to be the best managed state in the nation [4]; in January of 2011 The Milken Institute gave Utah the highest rating in the nation for Technology and Dynamism [5].

With all of these accolades one would think those looking at our state’s political system would be looking for what is right and working. Not the case for a Utah group who label themselves the “Count My Vote Executive Committee” (CMV). They are threatening the state’s political parties, stating that, they will run a petition to enact a law that makes significant changes to each party’s nominating process if the parties do not conform to their demands (click here to see their latest memo to the parties).

Can systems and processes be improved? Always! But I ask, is there something fundamentally wrong in Utah government when we are leading the nation on so many fronts? What is driving the group to demand change? One of the claims is that our current nominating system is driving down voter participation? Is that really so? Where is the evidence? At last year’s caucuses a record number of citizens participated in local meetings. In the precinct where I reside we had more than twice the attendance of any previous caucus. Hmm, is there are problem here? In the 1996  presidential election voter turnout was 52.1 percent based on Utah residents that were eligible to vote in 2012 it was 56.0 percent a 7.7 percent increase [6].

Members of the CMV have also noted that our process is unique in the nation. Should we change our process to be more like other states, for example California? If our goal is to be more like California in how they manage their debt or support businesses then of course we want to change! Seriously though, don’t we like being unique (#1) in those areas? Don’t we enjoy our status of being a leader? Why are we then afraid of being unique in the process we use to nominate party representatives for office?

Moreover, is it really wise to ask the state to determine the process private organizations to use in selecting their leaders and representatives? Would we even consider creating a law to dictate to the Catholic Church how to select their leaders because some religious professors, former Catholic leaders, and consultants (who were lobbying for specific individuals to be Bishops or Cardinals) thought they knew better? Would we consider it correct to run a state petition in Utah to dictate to the LDS church how to select their local leaders because a few did not consider the process fair or inclusive? Of course not! They are private organizations and if really we wanted to influence their policies we would work from within the group; not create a law to force them to change.

Are the ideas of the CMV worthy of consideration?  Yes! In fact the Republican State Central Committee voted unanimously on April 13, 2013 to support a resolution to “research, discuss and consider improvements to the Republican Caucus/Convention System, which improvements may be implemented and / or added to the Caucus Handbook of Instructions …”

There is no crisis that demands an immediate resolution. Republicans and Democrats will continue to improve their systems, but will do so in a deliberate and measured fashion rather than the rushed process demanded by a small outside group. Utah will become an even better place to live because we have residents who care to be involved and because we have a system that allows the everyday man or woman to make a difference.

Here are some items I think could be explored more deeply so that good decisions can be made:

  • The Value of Primaries: Are they good or bad, not just from a cost basis, but do they help prepare candidates for a general election (not always an important consideration in Utah) or to be better elected officials?
  • Voter Turnout: Yes, Utah turnout is below the national average (for 2012 the national average for 58.7%, Utah was 56%, Hawaii was the lowest at 44.5%, and Minnesota was the highest with 76.1%. Note, if you want dig into this a good site to look at is the United States Election Project where you can download a spreadsheet with voter data for all states since 1980. Should our goal be increased voter turnout or more informed voters? Is it better to have a 50% voter turnout of generally well informed voters or a 65% turnout of less informed voters? Is there a way to measure how informed Utah’s voter’s are versus other regions? If Utah’s voters are more informed then the below average turnout might not be a bad thing.
  • Historical Patterns: When the threshold to win at convention was 70% and 80% what were the percentage of races with primaries compared to the current 60%. How did incumbents fare under the different scenarios? Note, looking at the races held since the threshold was dropped to 60% and using the vote count to determine what the outcome would have been under 70% or 80% is useful and the Republican party did this analysis for 2000 – 2012. However, this analysis does not take into account behavioral changes in campaigns when the target is 60%, versus 70%, versus 80%. I therefore think actually going back and looking at data from races run under the different thresholds would provide additional color.
    Another question to look into is whether the 40% threshold for getting to a primary is too high. In 2010 the Neil Walters missed getting into a primary by 2 votes. Neil was a candidate running to represent the Republican party in the 2nd Congressional district. He would likely have won a primary race (I was a Philpot volunteer and am pretty sure that would have been the case) and would likely have done better against Representative Matheson than Morgan Philpot. Merrill Cook got to a primary with 30.1% of the delegate vote and then won a primary race. I don’t think this is a black and white issue.

I’m not sure what the best vehicle for such a discussion would be, but whatever the format, a lot of work would need to be done in advance so the discussion would be based on objective information not just one person’s opinion versus another.

Of course another approach would be to follow the adage for success; fail fast and fail often. The CMV’s approach of enshrining their ideas into law would mean that we might fail fast but could not fail often. Rectifying a problem created by unintended consequences would be lengthy and costly. Wouldn’t it be much better to let the parties implement changes in their by-laws or caucus rules which can be quickly revised to make improvements.

Do you know what percentage of successful companies had to abandon their original strategy in order to succeed? 93%! [7]. Does the CMV think they are brighter than leaders and investors in 93% of successful companies? Would anyone seriously want to put their ideas into the law books where they become difficult if not impossible to change?

Another good quote that supports the fail fast and fail often approach is from George Box, former president of the American Statistical Association. He said, “the only way to know how a complex system will behave--after you modify it--is to modify it and see how it behaves.[8] Certainly, the caucus/convention system qualifies as a complex system. Of course I don’t think anyone is advocating for random changes. We need to do our best to make informed changes but we also need to be able to undo them if there are unintended consequences.

[1] The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Aug 19, 2012
[2]Utah Tops Forbes 2012 List Of The Best States For Business”, Forbes, Dec 12, 2012
[3]Utah Recognized As Best In The Nation For Debt Management”, The Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, Feb 11, 2010
[4]Grading the States”, The Pew Center, 2008
[5]State Technology and Science Index 2010”, The Milken Institute, Jan 2011
[6] United States Election Project
[7] Clayton M. Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life, 2012
[8] Clayton M. Christensen, Jeff Dyer, & Hall Gregersen, The Innovators DNA, 2011


  1. Well put Rod! Very good questions. Being in Washington State I don't know a lot about Utah politics and Politics here are in such a sad state. But it seems nationally the Republican Party is really struggling for identity. Do you think these proposals in Utah are an attempt by the national folks to feel relevant? Maybe they believe they can effect little changes here and there and think that because Utah is so strong you won't sustain too much damage if it turns out to be bad policy.

  2. The Caucus System in Utah is the best way to make sure a grass roots process can work over large amounts of money. It is the only way someone with $100,000 can go against someone with $2,000,000 in election funds.

    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.

    Most people who want the caucus system changed, there are exceptions, are frustrated that they don't have as much power as people who show up to the neighborhood election caucus meetings. It doesn't take money; you just have to show up.

    Bypassing the Caucus / Convention System will NOT create more participation. Approx. one out of every 4 or 5 republicans attended their neighborhood election caucus meeting this last year. One in every three told a KSL poll they were involved or attending. 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.

    When people realize this "County 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.

    If 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. This "Count My Vote initiative is an attempt to change the party rules by state law, bypassing the party and is even an attempt to change the law bypassing the legislature.

    It doesn't mean things can't be better, but this isn't the way to do it.

  3. Cathy ... I believe the changes proposed (they were apply only to federal and statewide office) provide those with money and influence like the Washington elite (not Washington State :), media, and long-time politicians with more influence over election results than they currently have in Utah. You certainly could be right that they want to feel more relevant.

  4. Very good article on the current problem.
    There is an adage:"if it ain't broke don't fix it.
    With this in mind,what are the advantages for the group that want to make the change compared to the advantages for the general population?

  5. Elizabeth. This is pure speculation on my part but let me try a couple of names.

    David Hansen (Current campaign manager for Mia Love): If the rules were altered to make it easier to get to a primary Mia would benefit because it is likely that she will have more money and name recognition than any competitor. I believe the biggest risk to her winning the GOP nomination is that someone would be her at convention.

    Michael Leavitt: His involvement with the group keeps his name in the press. If CMV is successful in spinning their efforts as fighting for the everyday man versus the evil party bosses and extremists in both parties then his personal stock will rise.

    Political consultants in general: More primaries and more options to get to them increase the market for their services.

    Media: More primaries will drive advertising revenue (radio/tv/newspapers) and can increase readership for local newspapers, viewership for local TV stations, and listenership (is that a word) for radio shows.

    Public employees: More regulation creates additional jobs/opportunities. Additional resources are required to monitor adherence and ensure compliance.


Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts regarding this post.