Mero Moment: The Merits Of Caucuses

This week I want to talk about Utah’s caucus and convention systems. Both major political parties in Utah use a nominating system of caucuses and conventions to select their party’s candidates. As a conservative, I find much to praise about it. Most of all, it has the unique benefit of requiring active citizenship and participation – to have an effective voice, you have to get involved. Its active nature contrasts with other systems that mitigate a true nominating system within political parties or settle for passive participation – in other words, primary systems wherein most of the participation is summed up as one vote on one day.

The debate over state-based immigration reform has given me pause in reflecting on Utah’s caucus and convention system. The system is already susceptible to charges that the few end up electing the few, meaning that a handful of delegates whittle down choices and our elections become an exercise in “advise and consent” more than being actual elections. But when you add the nuance of the angry few electing the few, as we have evidence of within the state Republican Party as it wrestles with the issue of immigration, even I’m a bit more sensitive about the merits of our caucus system.

Some of the complaints against the caucus system are specious, I think. Not long ago a complaint was lodged that the system somehow discriminates against women because even though the majority of registered voters are women, they are underrepresented as party delegates. Of course, there could be a dozen other reasons as to why more men than women are delegates.

And, though I’m sensitive to extremism as it rears its ugly head, as it has in the immigration debate, I’m not sold that extremism is a deep and wide problem in Utah’s major political parties. Does the caucus and convention system encourage extremism? I guess it can, but that term is also flung around by people who think an extremist is someone who simply disagrees with them.

Because moderate Republican candidates such as Olene Walker and Bob Bennett were snubbed within our current system, some people are now trying to find a way around what we have in place. While state government cannot interfere with political parties without infringing on the First Amendment (even though tax dollars pay for elections), we could pass a constitutional amendment that allows non-affiliated candidates to get on the general election ballot with enough popular support – kind of like an initiative process. That sort of thing might have worked in placing Governor Walker and Senator Bennett on their respective general election ballots.

I’m equally concerned about how money guides broad-based elections. If we move from a caucus system to only a primary system where political parties are the ones advising and consenting, not the electorate as it now stands, wealthy people and special interests could have the advantage – although I’m not so sure the caucus system reduces campaign spending; in fact, there are signs that as much money is spent by candidates in the current system as is spent elsewhere in primary systems.

The short of it is a principle that’s always been true in America: Without good and wise and honest people, this nation is doomed. I’m more concerned today about making sure that reasonable and wise people participate in the system we have rather than worrying about changing the system, as tempting as it is. If someone thinks “extremists” dominate Utah’s political parties today, get involved and make your voices known. I would encourage every Utahn to be a responsible citizen and every responsible citizen to get involved in civic affairs and political parties of their choice.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.