Holly Richardson: Did a pandemic just save the caucus system?

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) From left to right, Jeff Burningham, Aimee Winder Newton, Spencer Cox, Jon Huntsman, Greg Hughes and Thomas Wright stand on the stage during a debate for Utah's 2020 gubernatorial race, Jan. 31, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Utah Republican delegates will narrow the filed in this week's GOP State Convention.

Of all the changes brought on by COVID-19, perhaps one of the most unexpected is how nice a pandemic made county and state political conventions.

I have been a Republican state and county delegate numerous times over the last 20 years and there is no question in my mind that the conventions this year were the absolute best I’ve ever participated in. I live in Utah County and participated in the county convention last week and then this week, voted in the state convention. Eric Ries, author of “The Lean Startup,” said, “A pivot is a change in strategy without a change in vision.” And there’s been some major pivoting going on.

As a delegate in this brave new world of pandemic campaigning, I got many text messages and phone calls. Some became a nuisance, but only a minor one because the trade-offs made it worth it. I did not have to travel further than my family room to participate in “town halls” done over Zoom or the phone. The candidates also did not have to spend hours upon hours commuting and could do more actual talking to delegates.

I participated in more town halls via technology than is physically possible to drive to. I watched all the candidate convention speeches via video and remarkably, they all stayed within their time limits. According to an email from GOP Chair Derek Brown on Friday, delegates have watched the equivalent of 12,000-plus hours of video. And, we did it in a way that best fit our current pandemic lifestyles.

My time as a delegate felt respected and valued and many of my friends who are also delegates agree. We did not have to sit through hours of haggling over minutiae. (Point of order!) We did not have to wait around for hours to get results of one round of balloting. Candidates don’t have to worry about losing half the delegates before the final rounds of voting. Balloting is open for several days (Thursday through Saturday), allowing maximum flexibility for delegates to participate in the way that works best for them. Voting took all of 5 minutes. That’s a big win.

As of Friday morning, approximately 24 hours after polls opened, 1,930 delegates had already voted in the GOP convention, out of the 2,943 who had signed up with the Voatz system, or darn near two-thirds. That’s remarkable.

It has also been interesting, mostly in a good way, to see the way party leadership and candidates have pivoted with very little notice. The process from my end has seemed pretty smooth. Campaigning transitioned relatively seamlessly, although I have no doubt that, behind the scenes, there were some people who felt like they were running around with their hair on fire. The logistics of moving everything online were surely daunting to the people tasked with the move, but again, from a delegate’s point of view, it was smooth. Communication from state and county parties increased.

If future caucuses can be run this way, we could get back to the real reason we have neighborhood caucuses — participation by all the neighbors, not just those who want to hijack the system. This can include those who work evenings, families with small children, people who might be ill that one evening in March and actually let everyone have a voice — and a vote — in electing neighborhood delegates.

A lot of the changes that have come from COVID-19 have been uncomfortable. I hope some of them are only temporary. But this new way of voting in convention? Well, I hope this one sticks around.

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson is a longtime political activist and she predicts that there will be four gubernatorial candidates on the GOP primary ballot.