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Thursday, March 20, 2014
Why I'm Wavering on the Caucus/Convention System

The Utah Republican Party might be able to extend precinct caucuses somehow to include those who want to attend but cannot, but it doesn't have a history of taking that issue seriously. I'm not sure reforming the system would solve the other problem: the Utah Legislature.

Yesterday, I promised to explain why I've been wavering lately about Utah's caucus/convention system for selecting candidates, despite my satisfaction with a lot of its results, my appreciation for some of its strengths, and my enthusiasm for working within it for the past eight years to select good candidates. Lately, I've been thinking that a pure primary system might serve us better overall.

I know the legislature just passed, and the governor just signed, some legislation to allow a path for candidates to get to the primary ballot without going through a convention, if they have enough money to hire enough minimum-wage, out-of-state workers to get enough signatures on a petition -- sorry, did that sound derisive?-- but similar legislation in other states has failed to survive court challenges, so let's not worry too much about it today. Instead, let's mostly talk about the caucus/convention system as it presently exists.

Caucus Participation

On one hand, the caucus system works much better when attendance is high than when it is low, in terms of both credible representation and resistance to wing nuts and barking moonbats. On the other hand, it's hard to accommodate a dozen or more large caucuses in a given town on a given night. Two years ago, my precinct and another precinct had rather uncomfortable, simultaneous meetings in the same large room, with hundreds of people in each.

On one hand, I'm delighted by the increase in caucus turnout in recent years in many precincts and by its moderating effects. On the other hand, a lot of folks who would like to participate cannot. There are early signs of an absentee voting mechanism emerging, but that only works if it actually works, if people use it, and if there's a way to get to know all the candidates well in advance of the caucus. There's now a way for candidates to register their intention to run for precinct offices and delegate seats. It's a start, but no one in my precinct had used it, as of yesterday. If we can evolve a way to handle a lot of precinct business remotely and still preserve the positive effects of neighbors gathering to conduct politics, sign me up, but I'm not convinced yet. I keep imagining the prohibitive difficulty of having thousands of little elections all at once, with full-fledged registration, voting, and absentee voting mechanisms running separately in each neighborhood, with separate sets of candidates.

Voter Turnout

Some folks believe that the caucus system suppresses voter turnout -- not that they can point to a lot of primaries with great turnout. On one hand, I think every voter should cast an informed, thoughtful vote in every election. On the other hand, increasing voter turnout is not the holy grail for me, because so many voters who do turn out invest so little effort in advance, and many of those who don't now turn out invest even less. Casual voters tend to vote for slogans and sound bites, which don't generally lead to good government.

Notably, improving voter turnout has been the mantra of the Count My Vote movement, which has sought to replace the caucus/convention system with a pure primary in time to defeat Senator Mike Lee in 2016. (No, they don't usually mention that last part.) I question their motives. I think this is partly sour grapes over Senator Bennett's defeat at the state Republican convention in 2010. I was there and helped with that, by the way. The senator cast some impolitic votes and didn't take the caucuses and convention very seriously, unlike Senator Orrin Hatch two years later (for whom I also voted).

The aforementioned compromise legislation, if it stands, has given the Count My Vote crowd enough of what they wanted that they've suspended their drive to put a resolution on the 2014 ballot to replace the current system with simple primaries.

Representative Government

On one hand, I like the neighborhood participation early in the process, and I like the idea of electing representatives who will carefully scrutinize the party's candidates in behalf of their neighbors. On the other hand . . . well, several things.

There isn't much time in a caucus to discuss issues or candidates, unless we let them get unbearably long. Except when someone does some advance campaigning, as I do, we have to choose delegates based on one- or two-minute speeches. Most of the delegates don't manage to say much in their brief speeches, either, and, if there's time for any questions, it's not many. So the level of informed neighorhood participation in caucuses has some inherent limits.

The Count My Vote movement, like the open primary movement, thinks representative government at this level disenfranchises voters in droves. The logic isn't there, but it makes for good sound bites. In fact, the only people disenfranchised are the voters who would go to caucuses but cannot, because they have to be at work or elsewhere on that evening -- a problem we should have been working to solve for years, if not decades, if we were committed to the long-term viability of the caucus/convention system.

Moderates? Ideologues? Wing Nuts?

On one hand, I have seen and participated in the process of voting on gubernatorial and US Senate candidates, and I like the fact that the first ballot inevitably excludes the weakest and most extreme candidates. It did so in 2010, before Senator Robert Bennett was retired on a later ballot, and in 2012, when Senator Orrin Hatch was not retired. In the former case, we delegates gave the voters a primary between Mike Lee (whom I supported from the beginning, as soon as I decided I had had enough of Senator Bennett, whom I still liked in several ways) and Tim Bridgewater. Lee won the primary narrowly and the general election more handily, and I have generally been very pleased with his work in Washington. The Republican establishment in Utah feels otherwise, of course.

In 2012 we delegates gave primary voters a choice between Senator Hatch and (arguably) a more conservative Dan Liljenquist, the only one of several challengers who had much credibility as a candidate. So we cannot say that the caucus/convention system routinely sends incumbents or moderates packing. We can say that it sometimes does, if they (e.g. Bennett) have offended a lot of Republicans with their recent votes, and if they fail to take the possibility of defeat seriously. Senator Hatch took it seriously and won another term.

Assuming Mike Lee runs for reelection in 2016, the politics will be interesting to watch. By the way, don't assume that the recent investigations into supposed hanky-panky by Mike Lee and Harry Reid are legitimate, just because they're coming from a Republican prosecutor and a Democrat prosecutor. Lee has more enemies in the Republican establishment in Utah than he has among Utah Democrats. Just linking his name to Harry Reid is a win for the Republicans who are desperate to defeat him in 2016.

In general, then, I have been very pleased with how the caucus/convention system has handled US Senate races and gubernatorial races lately. These votes involve thousands of delegates -- and, if caucus turnout is high, the delegates themselves tend to be more moderate overall. As I said, the weak and extreme candidates are the first to go, and the convention has in most cases offered the voters a primary election choice between two strong, credible candidates.

You might fairly ask at this point, Why am I wavering? This brings us to -- you guessed it -- the other hand.

On the other hand, the thing that has lately turned my support away from the caucus convention system is contemplation of -- and utter frustration with -- the lightweight, partisan, sectarian zealots club we respectfully call the Utah Legislature. When delegates consider these candidates they are in much smaller meetings, by legislative district. These meetings are usually held just before the general sessions of county conventions, unless a legislative district crosses county lines. Instead of having to sway hundreds or thousands of delegates, state legislature candidates only have to sway a dozen or two, in many cases. The results are decidedly inferior. For a sense of how bad I think the results are, consider my recent essay on my essential unfitness for the Utah Legislature, which, as you will see, was really more about the legislature's general unfitness for the Utah Legislature.

What Would I Prefer?

In summary, then, I am daunted by two major weaknesses of the caucus/convention system: (1) the exclusion of people who want to attend but cannot, and (2) the grossly inferior, ideologically poisoned nature of the state legislature it gets us.

We might, through technology and a lot of trial and error, which we probably should attempt, eventually work out a good, practical solution to the first problem, and thus preserve the caucus/convention system's considerable virtues, including grassroots participation as well as fewer primaries and, when necessary, primaries with better choices.

I am not at all optimistic that we can resolve the second problem within the current system. I think there's a good chance that a pure primary system might get us a better legislature. At this point, I'm willing to try that, despite the virtues of the present system.

In short, I'd like to see the parties reform the caucus/convention system and see where that leads us over time, but I'm now willing to be convinced that its day has passed. In practice, the party hasn't been very willing to reform itself.

In any case, there may not be time for any trial and error, because the state Republican establishment -- which, you will recall, elevated John Swallow -- wants to subvert or bypass the system that elected Mike Lee, before it elects him again.

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