Utah lawmakers battle over whether the state should move from a caucus system to a primary system. Count My Vote is a ballot initiative that, if passed, would make Utah a primary state. A counter initiative called Keep My Voice is seeking to reverse a 2014 law SB54 that provided a signature route to the primary ballot in addition to the caucus system, effectively creating a bifurcated caucus and primary system. The question of the constitutionality of that law is now before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The caucus system places a few steps between potential candidates and the primary election ballot. The caucus system begins at the neighborhood (or precinct) caucus meeting. At that meeting, members of the respective political party vote to elect local precinct officials, and delegates to represent them at the county and state party conventions. These meetings involve open debate and public voting over issues and candidates. The caucus method requires personal interaction on the part of candidates with the delegates at conventions to secure a spot on the ballot for the primary.
The primary requires candidates to reach the ballot by obtaining a sufficient number of signatures from the voters at large within the respective district to get on the ballot for the primary election. Depending on the state or county, various rules apply to the process. Some states, for example, have open primaries where citizens can vote for a candidate of a different party. Other states only allow citizens to vote for a candidate in the party they are registered.
Proponents of the caucus system say that it has proven historically to foster greater grassroots participation and accountability. They claim that it is an effective way to keep crony capitalism at bay and that it eliminates money as a dominant factor in politics. Many supporters of the caucus system claim that the move to a primary system across the United States is why money, in the form of political ads, has become such a problem. It gives a polished view of the candidate directly to voters, rather than forcing them into a more dynamic relationship with delegates. Additionally, they claim the primary system violates the First Amendment’s freedom of association guarantee.
Supporters of the primary system claim that it does exactly the opposite regarding voter participation and that it is less restrictive to potential candidates. Proponents claim that caucuses give undue political power to delegates who represent dominant local economic and ideological interests over those of most voters. For example, it may be hard to marshal sufficient numbers at the caucus meetings to fully voice concerns of citizens who may not be able to make it to the meetings because of conflicting work, family, and school schedules. This dynamic, opponents claim, effectively marginalizes the voices of the working class, mothers, students, and minority groups.
The battle has recently become apparent within the Republican Party after a minority of the Central Committee passed a bylaw that would oust a party member that sought the signature route to the ballot, provided by SB54. That change would not affect most of the 2018 candidates, however, and only applies to the first and second congressional districts. This took place over the objections of Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson. They even fired the party’s legal counsel after he advised that the move would put them at odds with state law and the constitution. Apparently, members of the central committee can call a special meeting so long as a quorum of at least 40 members is present. There are 183 members altogether, and many of them cannot make it to hastily called special meetings.
Utah residents will have the opportunity to participate in their local precinct caucus meetings on March 20th. The question of whether to change the caucus system will be one of the major issues up for debate this year, and there are strong opinions on both sides of the issue. More information about both ballot initiatives can be found at http://www.countmyvoteutah.org/ and https://www.keepmyvoice.org/