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Let's keep Utah's caucus system

Published April 27, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The caucus system used in Utah by both political parties may be the last remnant of real democracy left in our political system. The caucus is a grass-roots method, unaffected by big money and big media, where neighbors get together to discuss the issues and the candidates and select one of their own as their delegate to represent them at the county and state conventions to select their party's candidates.

That system is currently being criticized by some for not involving a larger group in the selection process and suggests replacing the caucus and conventions with a petition system to go directly to a primary election to make the selection. Before we abandon what has served the state well for years, let's consider the benefits of the current system and how the proposed changes could jeopardize that process.

While using the petition system and going directly to a primary election would allow more people to select a candidate, it would also have the unintended result of reducing the number and variety of candidates and diminish the importance of small towns in rural Utah.

Under the current caucus system, any candidate with a telephone can mount an effective campaign for office. If you are willing to take the time, you can make your case directly to the delegates who will select the candidate.

If we adopt the petition alternative, a potential candidate would have to mount a massive petition drive and face the legal fees associated with the petition, as well as the difficulty of recruiting and directing an army of volunteers to get the required signatures.

If you do collect enough signatures to be on the primary ballot, the high cost of radio and TV ads could eliminate all but the best-financed candidates, generally insuring that existing politicians with established funding sources would be the only ones able to afford a race. Also, the necessity to raise money for TV and radio ads would make it more difficult for the candidates to focus on getting to know the delegates and the issues throughout the district, likely short-changing our smaller communities of the representation they need and deserve.

A compromise has been proposed where the percentage of convention delegate votes required to get the party's nomination without going to a primary would be increased from 60 percent to 70 percent, the same number used before 2000. Had this new rule been in effect for the past seven elections, there would have been seven more opportunities for a larger group of party members to select the candidate or, if a two-thirds supermajority had been in use, six more elections.

Having more party members involved in the final selection process would also serve to protect the system from being hijacked by a small but determined organization that could flood the caucuses and impose their minority opinion on the larger group of party members.

The caucus-convention system is not perfect, but it does have its benefits to the people. And by adopting the proposed modification, rather than replacing it with a petition approach, I believe the people of Utah have a better chance of being heard and represented the way they deserve to be. The proposed change to a two-thirds supermajority or a 70 percent voting threshold being considered at the Republican state convention has merit, and appears to keep the best of the current caucus system while addressing the wishes of those who want to expand the selection process to a wider audience.

Bob Fuehr is a retired telecommunications executive and former state economic development director. He was a Republican candidate for the 2nd Congressional District nomination in 2012.