The LDS Church’s top leaders are telling their Utah congregations, in stronger-than-usual language, to cancel meetings when parties hold their caucuses next month and strongly encouraging Mormons to attend those political gatherings instead.
Critics of the caucus system praised the move, saying it may help prevent extreme groups from controlling parties —which can happen when only activists attend the neighborhood meetings that select convention delegates. Democrats also applaud the church’s statement for wording they say reinforces that faithful Mormons can belong to their party.
“Precinct caucuses are the most fundamental grass-roots level of political involvement,” says the letter from the church’s governing First Presidency. “They are best served by a broad representation of Utah citizens.”
Dated last Thursday, to be read in LDS worship services in Utah, the letter asks that no evening meetings be held March 13 — when Democrats hold their caucuses — and March 15 — when Republicans and the Constitution Party hold theirs.
“We are concerned with the decreasing attendance at the caucus meetings in Utah in recent years,” the letter adds. “We therefore ask that local leaders not schedule meetings on these Tuesday and Thursday evenings so that members may attend a caucus meeting of their choice.”
The letter is more direct than in the past. LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said that at least since 1998, local LDS leaders were asked to arrange meeting schedules “in such a way that adult members may also participate in these important meetings.” When caucuses were scheduled on a Monday in 2002, the Utah-based faith asked families to reschedule Family Home Evenings they normally hold then to attend caucuses.
“It is a very significant step by the LDS Church,” said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Jowers has been part of the Alliance for Good Government — which includes former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt — that is seeking reforms of the caucus system. The group worries that strident partisans have taken over the delegate system and driven down voter turnout by selecting candidates who are more to the left or right of mainstream Utahns.
For example, the caucus system resulted in convention delegates defeating former Sen. Bob Bennett and Gov. Olene Walker, both of whom were popular with the general public but not conservative enough for GOP activists. It also brought a primary fight for Rep. Jim Matheson, who Democratic delegates felt was not liberal enough.
“The more people who participate, the better,” Jowers said. “Our government is built on ‘we the people,’ not ‘we the angry few.’ The more people who can attend from whatever demographics, Republican or Democrat, the more representative our government will be.”
David Kirkham, a founder of the conservative Utah tea party movement and a GOP candidate for governor, said tea partyers welcome wider involvement in caucuses, even if light participation may have helped his group depose Bennett.
“I hope 100,000 people show up,” he said.
Kirkham added that, in 2009 and 2010, he traveled the state seeking such participation. “We didn’t tell people how to vote, just to show up and vote their heart. Of course, we figured they would oppose Bennett if they did.”
Bennett said participation was greater in 2010 after a somewhat similar LDS Church letter, “but most of the people who showed up were still activists.” He said caucuses were also held the same day President Barack Obama signed new health care legislation, “so people expressed their anger by going after all incumbents, including me.” Such groups now seem to focus their anger mostly on Obama himself, Bennett said, “so [Sen.] Orrin [Hatch] should probably be OK this year.”
Hatch, a Republican seeking a seventh term in Washington, faces an intraparty challenge from state Rep. Chris Herrod and former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.
Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright said the LDS letter “will increase attendance. ... The more attendance we have, the more indicative of the population the caucus meetings will be. That’s healthy for the system. We want all types of Republicans to feel represented in our caucus meetings.”
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis also said the move should boost participation, but was “thrilled” with another part of the First Presidency letter. It said, “Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in the platforms of the various political parties. We encourage members to attend their precinct caucus meetings.”
“It clearly opens the door,” Dabakis said, “for people who are faithful LDS to feel very compatible in the Democratic Party, and that helps to allay that horrible myth that you can’t be a Democrat and a Mormon. Clearly, that’s not true.”
He noted that Utah voter turnout went from among the top in the nation in recent decades to second-to-last in 2010. “This is a crisis situation in the state of Utah,” Dabakis said, adding that the First Presidency letter could help change that.
The Legislature is also considering HB90 by Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, which would require cancellation of all state and local governmental meetings during caucuses. It has passed a committee and been forwarded to the full House.