Most big money backers of Count My Vote skipped caucuses
Leavitt calls system “exclusionary”; critic of Count My Vote scoffs at “soft elitism.”
Published: October 7, 2013 09:52AM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:35PM
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File | The Associated Press Mike Leavitt, former governor of Utah and Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Mike Leavitt didn’t attend his neighborhood caucus in 2012.

The former Utah governor and Bush administration Cabinet secretary said he was on the campaign trail for Mitt Romney that night and couldn’t make it.

Leavitt did attend his caucus in 2010, however, making him one of two co-chairmen in the Count My Vote movement — aimed at dumping the caucus-convention system of nominating candidates in favor of direct primaries — who did attend a caucus in recent years. Former first lady Norma Matheson is the other.

In addition, just a third of the donors who poured more than $540,000 into the Count My Vote effort have been to a party caucus in the last several years.

All told, about $375,000 of the money raised by the group — more than two-thirds of the total — came from individuals or corporations run by people who have not attended their caucus meetings, according to an analysis of caucus records provided by the Republican and Democratic parties.

Paul Mero, president of The Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank, said the Count My Vote organizers are showing a disdain for “commoners.”

“To me, it’s this soft elitism where they really don’t believe in democracy. They don’t believe in sullying themselves with the common people, and in the caucus-convention process, that’s what it’s all about,” Mero said. “It’s all about going, looking your neighbor in the eye and picking a side. To me that’s one of the best parts of the process. But for people like these donors who do everything in a back room and cut deals among just a few people, it’s hard for them to fathom the true nature of the democratic process.”

But Leavitt said that his case proves the group’s point that the one-night caucus every two years disenfranchises tens of thousands of Utah residents.

‘Exclusionary’ • “I think last year I was off on the campaign trail with Mitt Romney and was not able to do that,” said Leavitt, who was a senior adviser to Romney. “Frankly there are tens of thousands of other people like me who have to be out of town on business, who care about the process very much who simply can’t attend for one circumstance or another, and that’s one of the ways this is exclusionary.”

Rich McKeown, Leavitt’s longtime chief of staff both as governor and in the Bush Cabinet, said he was in the same boat as Leavitt. Although he lived in Washington for six years, he maintained his residence in Utah. However, he wasn’t able to attend caucuses in that period.

“Since I got back, in each one I had business travel that was unavoidable, so it’s one of the reasons I’m a bit frustrated with the system,” said McKeown, who said he has attended caucuses previously.

McKeown is co-chairman of the Count My Vote group, along with Leavitt, Matheson and Gail Miller, the wife of the late Larry H. Miller.

The Tribune analysis looked at Republican attendance for the last three cycles — from 2008 to 2012. Democratic lists were only complete for 2012 and largely complete for 2010.

The way caucuses are structured, both McKeown and Leavitt argue, prevents parents, LDS missionaries, doctors and police, and others who are traveling for business from attending the caucus and, thus, being represented in the system.

McKeown said the caucus system also favors older, longtime residents of the state over Utah transplants and women, who are under-represented among the delegates. In the Republican ranks, for example, women make up half the GOP voters in the state, but a quarter of the delegates, according to a 2012 survey conducted by the Utah Foundation.

Showing up • Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, has raised questions about the Count My Vote movement and said that perhaps those unwilling to participate may not be “the best authors of public policy.”

“Politics and the process involved in getting people elected requires people to show up,” he said. “If you have complaints about the process, but don’t show up to participate in it, I’m not sure that’s indicative of problems in the process or the individuals who aren’t participating.”

James Evans, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, which has expressed its opposition to the Count My Vote initiative, said the lack of caucus attendance leaves the Count My Vote backers without a complete picture of the nominating system.

“My concern all along has been that these significant contributors who haven’t attended caucuses have been given one point of view about the caucus system,” Evans said. “We haven’t had the opportunity to make sure they have the complete picture, including the changes we will be implementing to make sure identified concerns have been addressed.”

Evans said he anticipates an emergency meeting of the Republican Party’s governing board to be held fairly soon where they will discuss and vote on a package of caucus reforms aimed at making it easier for people to participate, including pre-registration and proxy voting for those who legitimately cannot attend.

Utah State University political science professor Damon Cann said the participation by the Count My Vote supporters is probably better than it might seem on the surface.

“There’s just a touch of irony in them pushing for [reform] when they haven’t been participating,” he said. “On its face it seems like kind of a dreary statistic, but I think by comparison to the rest of the population you really have a group of people that is probably at least as politically active [as the average Utahn].”

Even in the record attendance at the 2012 caucuses — fueled by a multimillion-dollar mobilization effort from Sen. Orrin Hatch and repeated urging from the LDS Church for members to attend — only about a quarter of registered Republicans and 10 percent of Democrats went to their caucus meetings. In 2010 and 2008, turnout was even lower.

“It says something about the nature of the system when you have a set of individuals who are really invested in the community,” said Cann, “The Miller family has done terrific, wonderful things, a really civic-minded family, and if they don’t feel comfortable participating in the caucuses, that may be as much a comment on the caucus system as it is on the Millers.”

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke