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.
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)
How Count My Vote Would Work