For perhaps one last time, political party caucuses this week will figure into a long-running debate about whether small extremist groups can use them to control Utah’s ballot, or if big attendance there instead can ensure mainstream choices.
Examples of when small groups ruled — such as the tea party dumping former GOP Sen. Bob Bennett four years ago, even though polls showed he likely easily would have won a primary — led to a change in the system that takes effect Jan. 1.
Gov. Gary Herbert this month signed into law SB54 as a compromise between parties and the Count My Vote drive. It will allow Utah’s current caucus-and-convention system to continue with reforms, but also allows candidates to bypass it and gain direct access to a primary election if they gather enough signatures.
But for one last time under the old system — unless courts overturn SB54 — Democrats hold their caucuses on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Republicans hold theirs on Thursday at 7 p.m. Locations may be found online at utdem.org and utgop.org.
“It’s important that everyone attend,” says Utah Republican Chairman James Evans, “so that our delegates will reflect the sentiments of our larger Republican population.”
Caucuses will elect about 4,000 Republican state delegates and 2,600 Democratic state delegates. Candidates who receive 60 percent of delegate votes at convention go straight to the final election. Otherwise, the top two face off in a primary. In some areas with one-party domination, caucuses essentially determine final winners in some races.
Historically, attendance has been light at caucuses, so well-organized small groups could wield clout beyond their numbers.
But in 2012, both parties doubled caucus attendance over 2010 — thanks to Sen. Orrin Hatch spending millions in ads to increase attendance to avoid Bennett’s fate with the tea party; unprecedented, repeated over-the-pulpit pleas from the LDS Church; and excitement over Mitt Romney running for president.
“Our attendance went from 58,000 in 2010 to 125,000,” Evans said. Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said his party’s attendance also doubled that year.
Without a high-profile race now like Hatch’s two years ago, Dabakis expects attendance to drop a bit. But Evans sees it remaining high because of attention from the Count My Vote challenge. Also, both say attendance should be aided by a push by the LDS Church.
For weeks, it again has read letters from the pulpit urging attendance and instructed leaders to cancel church meetings that could interfere.
Dabakis said while he appreciates that, he has had reports from around the state saying some local LDS leaders were canceling meetings that interfered with GOP caucuses but not Democratic ones. “We remind LDS leaders that the letter was for meetings to be canceled for both party caucuses,” Dabakis said.
The LDS letter reaffirmed political neutrality by the church. “Platforms and philosophies consistent with church principles may be found in most political parties,” it said. It added that caucuses “are best served by a broad representation of Utah citizens.”
The church took an extra step to encourage participation this year. It sent a tip sheet to each of its congregations giving members ideas on how to be more effective at caucuses.
For example, it warns members that voting comes at the end of sometimes long meetings after, in the case of Republicans, they read the entire party platform and conduct party business, “so be prepared to stay the entire time.” It gives members tips on how to become a delegate — including the importance of advance work.
Dabakis said Democrats welcome voters from any party to attend, and anyone who will be at least age 18 by November is able to participate and vote. “For Democrats it’s fun,” he said. “It’s not a parliamentarian exercise in sternness. It is more like going to a neighbor’s living room and talking about politics and having a better society.”
Republicans allow anyone to attend, but only registered Republicans may speak and vote, Evans said. However, people may register at the meetings as Republicans.
He noted some changes this year. Parties are allowing people to check-in online and print a ticket to save time at the meeting.
Republicans will allow absentee voting by printing online ballots for precinct officers, marking choices or writing-in selections, sealing it in a signed envelope, and sending it and a copy of personal ID with a friend.
“It’s great because we get to exchange ideas and promote our issues and candidates, and we learn from each other through dialogue,” Evans said. “Every two years, we essentially renew ourselves as a party” through the caucuses
He said Republicans believe the caucus-convention system is so important that “a court will ultimately have to answer … how can our state intrude into a private organization and dictate how it selects its nominees” through SB54.
Evans said that while his party is “certainly exploring” filing a lawsuit itself, its focus for now is on the caucus and the April 26 state convention. “When we get past that, we’ll refocus” on whether to file suit, he said.
Dabakis said he sees SB54 having little effect on Democrats, and said he sees that new law “as a Republican deal… Those established old Republican families that have been greatly upset by the tea party now may have another way to get to the ballot. That’s what it was all about.”
Caucus meeting locations
• Democrats meet Tuesday at 7 p.m. Locations available online at www.utdem.org/caucusnight.
• Republicans meet Thursday at 7 p.m. Sites available at www.utgop.org/utgop.asp.