The pitched political civil war over Utah’s election system that’s been waging between lawmakers who support caucus conventions and the organizers of a citizen petition to do away with them ended in a truce this week. The reforms to Utah’s election system won’t take effect until 2015, but Democrat and Republican party bosses are hopeful that all the commotion that was raised in the caucus fracas between Count My Vote and the Legislature may help bring new participants to the process.
Matt Mietchen, the secretary for the Salt Lake County Democrats, says that caucus organizers have made it easier for citizens to get involved, as one of Count My Vote’s main critiques of the current process is that the caucus system is difficult to navigate.
For the first time, the Democratic Party is supplementing paper registrations done during caucus night with online pre-registration that will allow people to log on to the county party’s website, SLCountyDems.com, before caucus night to register and sign up for notifications about upcoming party meetings.
“This is a great way that they can get involved, right up front,” Mietchen says. Getting tapped in sooner can also help county Democrats learn more about the various “issue caucuses” that might speak to them, such as the Hispanic, labor or LDS caucuses.
It’s not a presidential election year, which means caucus attendance likely won’t be huge, but Mietchen says he’s still hopeful that Democrats will come out in force, given some of the important races. House Democratic Minority leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, has announced she will not run for re-election, and Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill, a Democrat, is expected to face a tough challenge in the fall against Salt Lake County GOP Chairman Chad Bennion.
This fall’s races will be the last with candidates chosen exclusively through caucuses and delegates. On March 10, Gov. Gary Herbert signed Senate Bill 54, the Count My Vote compromise pushed by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. As part of the deal, Count My Vote will halt its citizen petition drive to do away with Utah’s current caucus convention system, and candidates who gather enough signatures will be allowed to skip the process of courting caucus-nominated delegates and go directly to the primaries.
The compromise bill was widely blasted by current lawmakers—all products of the caucus-convention system—but they nevertheless passed the bill by wide margins. Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, held his nose in protest as he voted the bill out of a House committee, and on the floor, lawmakers lined up to complain about the bill before begrudgingly voting in favor of it.
How candidates will use the new system remains to be seen. Count My Vote head Rich McKeown says he imagines that some candidates will likely both use the caucuses and gather signatures for direct primaries. Critics worry that it will set up a two-tiered system, with the non-caucus option favored by candidates with deep-enough pockets to solicit signatures and votes in the primary election.
In the meantime, both parties are taking the upcoming caucus nights seriously. Salt Lake County GOP Chair Bennion says that on the state level, the Republican Party already made reforms in response to Count My Vote’s efforts, such as allowing absentee voting on caucus and convention nights. And for the first time, he says, the party will be stepping up its advertising from signs and fliers and forking out the cash for television commercials to let people know about caucus night.
At the county level, he says, the GOP has also increased the number of delegates that can be elected by 1,000, bringing the total number to 2,602, and has added new how-to videos on getting involved to the county party’s website, SLCoGOP.com.
Engagement efforts aside, Mietchen says, he can’t predict whether the Count My Vote attention will help caucus attendance or if Bramble’s bill will lead people to say “We don’t need to participate because it’s not going to matter,” he says.
As for the Count My Vote effect, Bennion is of the mind that any publicity is good publicity.
“The more discussion you have, the more opportunities to be informed, and go for yourself and engage in the process,” Bennion says.
SALT LAKE COUNTY NEIGHBORHOOD CAUCUS NIGHTS
Democrat: Tuesday, March 18, 6:30 p.m., see SLCountyDems.com for locations
Republican: Thursday, March 20, 6 p.m., see SLCoGOP.com for locations
For all locations, visit Vote.Utah.gov