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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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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.

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