Much to the chagrin of Republican Party loyalists, Utah’s unique caucus system may soon be a memory of a bygone era. An exclusive, sexist (like most American institutions) and power-hungry era.
Many Utahns are familiar with the neighborhood caucus meetings where neighbors gather every two years to elect delegates to represent them at county and state conventions. Those delegates were then responsible to nominate candidates to move forward to primary elections. But rules often allowed the candidates to avoid primaries altogether by procuring 60 percent of the delegate vote.
Thus, in a one-party state like Utah, the caucus system meant that delegates often made the final decision as to who would represent Utah in Washington. Voters, appropriately, became annoyed.
But the biggest problem with the caucus/convention system was that many more Utahns did not even know the system existed, or did not care.
Apathy was triggered by a host of factors, including long meetings, platform squabbles, implicit bias and even a little misinformation. Caucus-proponents claimed the system allowed for more “vetting” of candidates and avoided “low-information voters.”
But the idea that most voters are low-information voters is offensive, and effectively caused the demise of the once-useful system.
Last Tuesday night, Utahns showed what they think of the caucus system – by not showing up. Salt Lake Tribune reporter Taylor Anderson reported that “early figures put [attendance] at about a third, or about 10 to 15 percentage points lower than in typical midterm years.”
Many participants relayed accounts of barely being able to fill delegate positions and of many positions being filled by acclamation. Some extremist party members were surprised their moderate neighbors showed up to elect moderate delegates.
Not that it will matter anymore. With the Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 54 in 2014, there are now two paths to the primary ballot: through a party’s convention, or by obtaining signatures of party members – all party members.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld SB54 as constitutional. The Republican party had sued the state over its claim that SB54 infringed on the party’s right to freely associate and choose how to nominate its own candidates. But the appellate court held that the law did not infringe on that right because the party could still nominate a candidate, and SB54 struck an appropriate balance between the party’s rights and the state’s interest in ensuring representative democracy.
There is still a place for party conventions. Parties can forward their nominees to the primary ballot to duke it out with signature-candidates. The courts have been clear that the constitutionality of SB54 hinges on the availability of both paths to the ballot.
But if the Count My Vote petition initiative passes this November, which would tweak the number of signatures required down to a much more constitutionally-appropriate level, then Utah’s caucus system could be gone for good.