Opinion: We vote on issues and candidates. But who chooses those?

Party policies and candidates will be selected on March 5 — with your input or without it.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Democrats in District 39 attend the Democratic Party neighborhood caucus meeting at Kennedy Junior High School in West Valley City Tuesday March 20, 2018.

“...And it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice … when in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” — Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly, “The Devil Wears Prada”

The inimitable Meryl Streep delivered a monologue in the 2006 film “The Devil Wears Prada,” pointing out that Anne Hathaway’s character, Andrea, wore not a blue sweater, but a cerulean one. Even during Andrea’s attempts to be anti-fashion, she was unwittingly corralled into a pre-selected bin. The choice was made for her.

If only this phenomenon were exclusive to fashion.

Each autumn, an official general election ballot is sent to Utah voters. This ballot (usually) has multiple options. Through filling out our ballot, we exercise the right to vote for our representation. Presidential-year ballots are loaded with decisions, not just for president but for governor and senator, congress and state legislators, county council and local school board. Yet here’s the rub: Which nominees appear on the ballot — and the platforms on which they’re campaigning — were already chosen months, or even years, before.

What if the color cerulean does nothing for you? Who chooses the choices?

Every even year there are in fact four (yes, four!) election days in Utah. In addition to the general election, many know of and vote in the primary elections in June — overseen by Utah’s Lieutenant Governor’s Office — with official ballots mailed by our county clerks.

In the Legislature now in session, several lawmakers were originally elected by party delegates in a special election rather than by popular vote. These candidates are nominated during the April conventions for Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, etc. parties. Delegates with the power to vote at these conventions are elected even earlier, at the neighborhood caucus in March. These two election days are conducted not by a government office, but by the various political parties.

The all-day convention meetings can be intense. Speeches and voting fill the day and nominees are chosen. For races in which no candidates gather signatures to qualify for a primary, the votes of a few dozen, a few hundred or — at most — a few thousand delegates, are binding.

Even beyond convention, delegates help elect party leadership. The priorities of the Utah Democratic and Republican parties are shaped by the delegates. This is the room where it happens.

Caucus night in Utah, when delegates are chosen to represent you, will happen on March 5. If you’ve never gone to caucus before, you’re in good company. Attendance is considered high when 50 come in a precinct of 800 or more voters, and as a two-hour, weeknight, one-shot deal, it’s inaccessible to many given all the demands in our lives.

Yet caucus is arguably the most significant of all the four election days in the cycle. It’s the one moment when your opinion matters on the larger questions about what the choices should be — which candidates you want in leadership roles — what colors are your colors.

It’s the moment to show up and speak up. Serve as a delegate yourself or choose people you trust from among your neighbors.

Remember, party policies and candidates will be selected on March 5 — with your input or without it.

Let’s talk about when and how you can participate. Because caucuses are organized by each political party, each has its own rules. Locations aren’t posted on the official Utah Elections website. Our website, womensworkutah.com, can point you in the right direction, as can other wonderful civic organizations we partner with, like the Utah Civics Project and Utah Women Run. Each political party should soon have information on caucus participation on their individual websites.

We understand that class, work or small children can make getting to caucus a little tricky. Make a plan now for how you can attend. Mark your calendar, find a babysitter, invite local friends. For transportation, most caucuses are held nearby, and neighbors should be going, too. Meanwhile, Women’s Work Utah will keep our website and newsletters updated with this information as it becomes available.

If you’re generally happy with cerulean sweaters and ballot options, you’re in luck! No action is required. If instead, you feel like your political fashion sense, your voice or your values, are swept away by the time your ballot arrives, then March 5 is your day.

Deborah Burney-Sigman

Deborah Burney-Sigman, PhD, is a consultant based in Salt Lake City, with a background in environmental advocacy, political organizing, mediation and research science. She serves as a board member of Women’s Work Utah.

Emma Wilson Neal

Emma Wilson Neal is a lifelong lover of American democracy and a new mom living in northern Utah County with a background in tech, language teaching, and civic empowerment. She serves as a board member of Women’s Work Utah.

The founders of Women’s Work Utah believe that society is stronger when all voices are included. We disagree about plenty else, such as whether the caucus-convention system is the purest expression of democracy or a restrictive system needing overhaul. Our board has active members of four different political parties, plus a few members who are averse to party politics. Our bottom-line consensus, however, is this: Because the party caucuses make choices for Utahns, there is a caucus that needs your voice. Pick a party and show up for your values.

Correction: This piece was corrected to reflect that several lawmakers were originally elected by party delegates in a special election rather than by popular vote.

The Salt Lake Tribune is committed to creating a space where Utahns can share ideas, perspectives and solutions that move our state forward. We rely on your insight to do this. Find out how to share your opinion here, and email us at voices@sltrib.com.