How Utah Picks Its Politicians | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

October 30, 2013 News » Cover Story

How Utah Picks Its Politicians 

What you need to know about the Count My Vote reform that could revolutionize the process

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If the group Count My Vote has its way, politics in Utah could soon see its most dramatic change since Brigham Young stopped “electing” congressional delegates over the pulpit during church meetings.

Count My Vote is marshaling resources to wage a citizen-initiative campaign to, in simple terms, put the initial election success of Utah’s would-be politicos in the hands of all voters in a political party instead of smaller groups of delegates. If you ask Count My Vote officials, the two main words in the group’s battle call are “accountability” and “engagement”—forcing politicians to represent more voters, thereby increasing voter turnout.

But if you were to ask Count My Vote supporters who don’t work for the organization and thus aren’t bound to stick so closely to talking points, the two words that could sum up the reform’s efforts are “Mike” and “Lee.”

Utah’s newest senator became a household name throughout the country—and the world—for helping to bring the government to a halt and steering the nation’s economy toward a fiery collision with the debt ceiling, all in an effort to defund Obamacare.

And Lee, critics say, is the monster born of Utah’s caucus/convention system, which basically allows a small group of political enthusiasts, elected as delegates, to select the candidates for nomination at a party’s convention. In 2010, a cadre of Tea Party supporters helped oust longtime incumbent and conservative moderate Sen. Bob Bennett at the Republican convention, clearing the path for Lee’s victory in the GOP primary and, later, the general election.

A statewide candidate, Lee, if he wants to be re-elected, will have to court 4,000 state party delegates. But he will need just 60 percent of those—2,400 delegates—to nominate him at convention.

A recent poll conducted by Brigham Young University found that 57 percent of Utahns disapprove of Lee’s job and believed he should have compromised, even to the point of funding the dreaded Obamacare. But those who identified as Tea Partiers supported Lee by 90 percent.

Bennett “was popular, well-respected and knew how to get things done in Washington,” says Matthew Burbank, a political-science professor at the University of Utah. “Had he been in a primary election, I don’t think there would have been any chance Republican voters would have not renominated him.”

But let’s step back a minute from judging Utah’s political system by the politicians it’s hatched. While it’s easy for Democrats and moderates to complain of a Tea Party takeover, those Tea Partiers were at least willing to show up. They cared enough to find their caucus meeting, get elected, get trained as a delegate and go to the county or state conventions.

Supporters of the status quo point out that though delegates hold outsize power, they do so by representing their neighborhoods, just as lawmakers and other elected officials represent their constituents. Utah’s current system also allows delegates to actually shake hands with candidates, look them in the eye and ask them hard questions, whereas a direct primary would mean sound-bite campaigns that rely on billboards, ads and mass-media domination—the kind of campaigns that both reduce the quality of the conversation and cost a hell of a lot more than the current system.

Count My Vote is attempting to collect more than 100,000 signatures by April 2014 to put the proposed reform on the ballot come November 2014. So, for the sake of understanding the reform that could shake the foundation of Utah’s political landscape—or for the sake of at least not sounding like an idiot when discussing the reform with your friends and co-workers—the following is a nuts & bolts rundown of everything you need to know about Utah’s one-of-a-kind political system and the reform that could change it all.

How Caucuses Work (or Don't)

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VS.

How Count My Vote Would Work



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Insanity vs. Apathy
A study in stereotypes of CMV supporters and critics.

Stereotype: Literally Crazy ’Bout Caucuses
The Legislature has adjourned, and the time is nigh to leave the bunker and head to your local caucus meeting. You’ve spent a long winter, alone and naked except for your powdered wig and three-corner hat, listening to Fox News and Alex Jones while polishing Rush—your army-green AR-15—and counting your stockpile of gold coins. But now, spring has come, and it’s time to don your people clothes and head topside to get elected as a delegate and also stock up on ammo and Fig Newtons. This go-around, you’ve rallied your Patriots Only chatroom buddies and are confident you will be elected as a state delegate, where you hope to support a candidate dedicated to the three Ls: Lowering taxes, Limiting government and eradicating the Lizard people.

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Meanwhile, Closer to Reality ...
The truth is not quite so dramatic—after all, doomsday preppers aren’t really interested in politics, and who, even in Utah, could get a bunker approved by city zoning and planning? But some do point to Utah’s extreme politicians as being the result of extreme delegates.

Bryan Schott is a political blogger who occasionally contributes to City Weekly and writes for UtahPolicy.com. He notes that while his opinions are his own, UtahPolicy.com’s publisher, LaVarr Webb, is one of the organizers of Count My Vote.

Schott says that extreme delegates don’t want the system to change to direct primaries because “if the system is more inclusive, then you’re going to have this opposition from groups on the fringes of both parties. Because it’s their power bases. This is what they live for, to go to the caucuses. They’ve got that Tuesday in March after the Legislature ends circled in red on their calendars.”

As an example, Schott points to Lee and, on the other side of the aisle, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who does double duty as the chairman of the Utah Democratic Party. Schott says he guesses that Dabakis secured the seat of outgoing lawmaker Ben McAdams in the 2012 election only because it went to a vote of delegates. Had it been up to a primary, Schott suspects, a more moderate contender like former Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon would have nabbed the seat.

But while critics say the current system favors a cabal of delegates, supporters of the status quo argue that the reality of the delegate system is one that supports the average citizen who pays attention to politics.

Connor Boyack, author and head of the libertarian-leaning think tank the Libertas Institute, says that though the caucus system may seem antiquated to some, a system in which delegates get elected and get the chance to meet and engage directly with candidates is better than the alternative.

Boyack argues that Count My Vote’s initiative wouldn’t engage more citizens; it would just make politics less personal and more artificial.

“Those who oppose the system have definitely made caricatures out of the extreme politics of delegates, and it’s served their purpose—which is to paint them into a box that ‘these people are not like you, therefore, let’s change the system,’ ” Boyack says.

He argues that the problem is that the caucus system, like any political system, is a reflection of those who “show up” and put in the effort, with delegates competing to represent others, as in any political race. But removing the delegate system hands the political process over to the candidates who have the deepest pockets.

“It would change the entire landscape of politics in Utah to allow big spenders to pursue large checks and blanket statements with meaningless media campaigns,” Boyack says.

Boyack sees the effort as a move for the establishment to take away politics from average Utahns and, in the process, reducing the political dialogue of campaign season from meaningful conversations between candidates and delegates to the vague, slogan-y billboard and media campaigning that comes when candidates have to appeal to a broader voter base.

James Humphreys, director of Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, says the Count My Vote campaign will also unduly hurt smaller election campaigns. Humphreys recalls a Summit County campaign he worked on where a candidate who was an artist was able to best an opponent who worked as a financial consultant because he was able to meet personally with the delegates.

“He wasn’t raising money to send out mailers and buy yard signs; he was talking with people in neighborhoods around the whole county,” Humphreys says.

He also argues that Utah’s parties are still in the process of tweaking the system, using technology to make it more inclusive. The state GOP recently voted to allow absentee voting for those who are unable to attend caucus night, for example.

Overall, Humphreys finds strength in Utah’s unique system.

“Where else in the country can you find a 30-year senator [Hatch] sitting in the house of a plumber having to answer questions about his voting record in order to get elected? There’s value in that,” Humphreys says.

Stereotype: Voting … Is There an App for That?
The Legislature just ended, and you’re vaguely aware that you were supposed to do something today ... but then you washed down all those horse tranquilizers with a Pisswasser beer and smoked a joint, so now the volume of the nagging voice in your head has been turned down to a comfortable level. Now you can really focus on this
Law & Order: SVU marathon—which isn’t going to watch itself, after all, let alone live-tweet itself. You consider yourself politically active; at least, you do regularly “like” your friends’ political Facebook posts. If only getting involved were as easy a status update, then you’d be more active. Wait, was the election today, you wonder? Nope, that’s definitely sometime in December … better register to vote before then.

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Meanwhile, Closer to Reality...
Supporters of the caucus system say that the excuse that the caucus system is exclusionary often comes down to apathy. Boyack of the Libertas Institute argues that “ignorance of the process isn’t an indictment of the process.” He says political parties could do more by way of educational campaigns to explain the caucus process to party members, but the whole system shouldn’t be scrapped because of laziness.

“Just because people won’t take the time to do a quick Google search and find out for themselves [how the system works] doesn’t mean the system necessarily needs to change,” Boyack says.

But Rich McKeown, director of Count My Vote, says it’s not just exclusionary because it’s complicated; it’s also inconvenient to whole swathes of the working-class populations, from police officers and firefighters to hospital workers and single parents—and the list goes on and on. “If you’re a business traveler or a military member stationed outside of your state, then you are out of luck; your vote doesn’t count, because you are excluded from the system,” he says.

McKeown also cites research indicating that the usual demographics of delegates skew against the state’s population.

A 2012 survey by the nonprofit Utah Foundation, for example, showed that in that year, only 25 percent of Republican delegates were women, though 53 percent of Republican voters were women.

“We’re excluding women from this and marginalizing their participation in a remarkable way,” McKeown says.

If male delegates seem to favor male politicians, the stereotype of Utah’s patriarchy would also extend to age. According to the Utah Foundation survey, 41 percent of delegates in 2012 were 65 years old or older, but only 30 percent of all voters were in that same age group.

And though this small universe of decision-makers doesn’t necessarily represent the state, McKeown says, according to Count My Vote research, delegates pick which candidate goes on the ballot more than 80 percent of the time.

McKeown is also aware of the claim that CMV will make elections more expensive. But he points out that the elections are already expensive, citing the case of incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch in the 2012 election.

“When you take the last presidential election, where Sen. Hatch spent millions of dollars to get delegates to the convention, you begin to recognize that we’re not immune from money in the present system; it just happens to be focused on this very small group of people,” McKeown says.

McKeown also says rural voters won’t be discounted, given that the rural voice is already strong in the Legislature. He says that creative uses of social media allows candidates to interact more with more voters, and in such a way that the dialogue of elections won’t be diminished even though they’re trying to reach a larger pool of voters.

Schott points out that Utah’s politics have taken a turn toward the extreme, thanks to the caucus system.

“Two of our most popular governors, Mike Leavitt and Jon Huntsman, would not even get on the Republican ballot if they had to go through a convention today because they’re seen as heretics,” Schott says.

As for the convention, McKeown says it wouldn’t go away. Caucuses could still elect delegates, who could still go to convention, organize and perhaps cast their endorsement for certain candidates, but, ultimately, the decision would be left to voters in the party.

“The bottom line,” McKeown says, “is how can it be bad to have more people involved in this decision-making?”

Count My Vote will have until April 15, 2014, to gather 102,000 signatures from 26 of the state’s 29 counties for its petition. To donate or get involved, visit CountMyVoteUtah.org.

To donate or get involved with the group fighting to keep the current system, visit NeighborhoodElection.org.


Utah's Voter Turnout: A Sad History

Count My Vote organizers say that though their reform will change politics forever in Utah, their intentions aren’t political. Their main focus, they say, is to get people involved and civically engaged by making the election process meaningful once again.

Count My Vote’s director, Rich McKeown, says that research shows that Utah’s well-educated, service-oriented population should be voting more than it does, leading him to suspect that the caucus system unfairly excludes people. “We believe there is a systemic issue here as opposed to a voter apathy issue,” McKeown says.

Critics, however, say that there are a lot of factors that go into low turnout, such as Utah’s one-party domination of politics making some citizens feel that their vote doesn’t matter.

Percent of Eligible Utah Voters Who Voted in the General Election:

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Note: Higher turnout happens in presidential election years. Utahns came out in droves to vote against Bill Clinton in 1992, but even Mitt Romney couldn’t rally the stay-at-home nonvoters in 2012.

Source for 1990-2010: Utah Elections Office; 2012 data: George Mason University’s United States Elections Project

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