Strengthening Our Caucus System

Caucus meeting
Image by Cherie Priest

I really appreciated Paul Mero’s take on efforts to change our caucus and convention system. Unlike Mr. Mero, I’m not well enough connected to be invited to take part in private meetings regarding how to change Utah’s caucus and convention system. On that particular issue that is the largest of our differences.

Like Mr. Mero I have been annoyed at the misinformation that I have seen spread by and among delegates with extreme positions on a number of issues – HB 166 among them. Like Mr. Mero, I have tried to pay attention to the efforts to change the caucus/convention system but I have not found those proposed changes to warrant any particular support from me. The core of where my views align with those expressed by Mr. Mero are summed up in the following quote:

Yes, I’m sure some delegates have stated that they don’t want increased participation in the political process. But, to be fair, most of those voices are more concerned about how blissfully ignorant most Utahns are about the world around them than those voices are about consuming political power. So, yes, these delegates do believe they are better informed and for good reason – most of them are! Not all of them have the right answers, for sure. But it’s a bit disingenuous of my friend to chastise any serious citizen for wanting her candidate to be elected or her policy to become law – for heaven’s sake, that’s exactly what everyone wants!…

If reformers want their candidates elected to office, they should make a case that appeals to the most responsible citizens who take time to engage in a democratic process that has served this state since its founding.

I freely admit that I am one who has expressed a desire to have less uninformed participation in the process because I firmly believe in the caution exercised by our founding fathers when they established a system where voters would select people who they trusted on a relatively local level to make an informed decision on a larger level. I, like most people, feel more confident in my ability to get to know and trust a person on a local level than I do in my ability to get to really know a person somewhere within the state or elsewhere in the nation. Unlike many people, I am committed to taking the time to get to know the issues of the day, the candidates for office, and the positions of those candidates on those issues. I believe that everyone who is committed to studying the issues and the candidates should have the opportunity to cast their vote on which candidates should appear on the ballot. On the other hand, I do not believe that all voters can or will put in the effort to do that initial vetting of issues and candidates.

The virtue of the caucus and convention system is that it forces the candidates to first answer to voters who are actively engaged in the process and it helps to level the playing field between the candidates with money and connections and those who are not well known and connected. Any changes to the current system should seek to retain that initial filter and continue to have candidates first answer to to the actively engaged voters before setting their sights on the general population.

The biggest weakness of the caucus and convention system is that it limits participation in the process even among that subset of voters who are willing to be actively engaged. I have served as a delegate for my precinct in the past but because I did not pledge my allegiance to Orrin Hatch in a precinct that heavily approved of him I forfeit the opportunity to continue serving as a delegate. The weakness of the system is that those who are willing to be actively engaged in the process but hold views espoused by less than half of the precinct have no vote in selecting those candidates. That is the mechanism by which passionate and vocal movements can take over the system from time to time. Any changes in the system should seek to expand the breadth of viewpoints among those who are willing to do the work of studying the issues and vetting the candidates. As a past delegate I know how much work that is and I would invite anyone who is willing to dive in and participate.

The proposal to allow candidates to bypass the caucus and convention system may be promoted as a way to prevent energized outliers from taking over the process at times but it increases the systemic bias in favor of those candidates with financial resources and name recognition. At best it trades one problem for another. More likely it trades a small problem for a large one. Proposals to raise the threshold to avoid a primary are similarly promoted to make it more difficult for the process to be hijacked but they again fail to even begin addressing the underlying issue of less popular viewpoints getting effectively squelched at the precinct level. In other words, they increase the challenge for less well funded and well known candidates but they do not help to temper the overall potential for extremism within the parties.

Proposals to allow for caucus meetings on more than one night are promoted as measures to increase participation in the process and I applaud that goal. Unfortunately that approach creates significant logistical hurdles so while it sounds good on paper it would require some other changes to be defined and adopted before it could become a reality and those other changes would have to be evaluated on their merits because they could cause more problems than this idea would solve.

I think that Marco Diaz captured the heart of what is good about the caucus system when he wrote:

I strongly support our current caucus/convention system because I believe it is the best form of retail, grassroots politics which allows a candidate … to be able to meet delegates one-on-one, shake their hands and look them in the eye, sharing with them why they should vote for him or her. The delegates also have the opportunity to ask questions, really get to know each candidate and their positions and be able to make a much more informed decision.

The question remains, how can we improve our system of selecting candidates without sacrificing the benefits we enjoy from the caucus and convention system. The answer is to reform the way that delegates are selected at caucus meetings.

Instead of having caucus attendees vote for 2 or 3 or 6 or whatever number of delegates the party decides to assign to a precinct, have each voter at the caucus meeting vote for the one potential delegate that they feel will best represent them. Allow all who receive votes, whether their own vote or a vote from their neighbors, have a vote at the party convention and weigh the votes of each delegate based on the number of votes they received on caucus night. This means that those who hold minority positions in their precinct will still get a voice at the convention even though it will be less of a voice than those who represent a majority. Anyone who would not have the time to serve as a delegate has a full vote to bestow on the delegate they feel would best represent them. Anyone who would have the time can be a delegate but they may also choose to vote for another delegate if they feel that person will adequately represent them. By doing this the precincts with the most influence are not those designated by the party with more delegates, nor those who have party officers or others who have been granted automatic delegate status by the party. The party officers would still have their vote at the convention but if they wanted to have more than a single vote (representing themselves) they would have to run in their precinct to be a delegate – just like anyone else. The precincts with the most influence are those who have the most participation in the caucus. This encourages participation at the precinct level and guarantees that all viewpoints are proportionally represented at the convention whether they are extreme or moderate.

In my experience, the number of people who wish to be delegates tends to be only 2 to 3 times as large as the number of delegates allotted by the party. My proposal would allow voting by all those who wish to participate while still leaving the pool of delegates small enough to allow any candidate to engage those delegates and seek their vote. In order to keep things even between delegates, the party would provide a list of delegates to candidates but would not be allowed to indicate how much voting power any given delegate had. The candidates would be encouraged to seek the support of every delegate regardless of whether their vote at the convention had a multiplier of 1 or 25.

I feel strongly that this idea has the potential to maximize the benefits of our current system while strengthening its current weaknesses. I hope that you will help to share this idea widely and make it part of the discussions on how to improve out system. I am especially interested in having this discussed by the Utah Republican Party (or more specifically the State Central Committee of the party) and by the members of the Count My Vote Coalition. Anything anyone can do to intoroduce this idea to those groups and have it discussed would have by profound appreciation. I can accept if people do not like the idea but I would be saddened if it dies simply because it was never discussed.

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