A new citizen initiative that aims to change the caucus election system to a direct primary model will begin collecting signatures next week — but it appears that there aren’t many in Cache Valley who support it.
An informational public hearing was conducted Wednesday at the Logan Library, and similar hearings were held across the state throughout the week. In Logan, about 50 people attended the hearing, and the majority spoke up against the changes in the initiative, called Count My Vote.
Taylor Morgan, one of Count My Vote’s executive directors, presented what he called “the technical nuts and bolts” of how Count My Vote would change the election process for county, state and congressional races. He spent much of his presentation attempting to fend off vocal attacks on the proposition from loud and zealous caucus-system supporters.
Morgan said he wasn’t surprised by the response, but didn’t feel that the attitudes displayed were representative of the attitudes of Utahns or Cache Valley residents in general.
“I thought (the hearing) went very well,” he said. “I mean, we understand with something like this that it’s pretty typical for opposition to come out in force.”
Of the meeting attendees, about half spoke up against the initiative, and many spoke multiple times within the hour. A few people timidly spoke in favor of the initiative, and many stayed silent throughout the meeting, not making their opinions known.
Change is hard, Morgan said, and winning people over to the initiative requires meticulous education on the reasons for Count My Vote and why proponents believe it will change the election system for the better.
Count My Vote proposes doing away with the caucus system in favor of a direct primary. A direct primary differs from an open primary (which is what California uses), Morgan said, because candidates must gather signatures from 2 percent of their party to be put on the ballot.
For Count My Vote to be successful, the group must gather 102,000 signatures by April 2014, and the issue would then be put on the November 2014 election. If approved, the changes would go into effect for the 2016 election.
Morgan said Count My Vote aims to increase voter participation and change the system so that “every vote counts.” In his Powerpoint presentation, he showed voter turnout data indicating that from 1960 to 1998, Utah’s voter turnout was always above the national average. Since 1998, however, the turnout has been near or below the national average. The state has gone from the top 10 in voter participation in the nation to the bottom five, Morgan said, which is strange for a state known for resident community involvement and concern about civic issues. The culprit for this phenomenon, Count My Vote supporters believe, is the caucus system.
David Butterfield, a former head of the Cache Republican Party, told The Herald Journal in a interview after the hearing it’s unlikely that the caucus system is to blame for low voter turnout, as voter participation for municipal elections, which don’t use a caucus, is also very low — it was around 7 percent of registered voters this year in the Logan Municipal Primary.
When asked for his opinion, Lyle Hillyard, Utah state senator, said the suggestion that the caucus system contributes to low voter participation is nonsense. He noted that the decrease in participation is a recent phenomenon, and that the caucus system has been in place “forever.”
Morgan agreed that the caucus system in Utah has been in place pretty much from the beginning, with the exception of 1937-1947, when a primary was briefly used. Caucus systems are antiquated, Morgan claimed, and Count My Vote will modernize elections. He also pointed out that because someone must be physically present at the caucus meeting to vote on a delegate, the process excludes those working or living away from Utah, military members, missionaries, mothers with small children, and other voters who cannot be physically present for the meetings.
The system specifically disenfranchises women voters, Morgan said, stating that while 53 percent of votes are cast by women, women only made up 25 percent and 43 percent of Republican and Democratic delegates, respectively.
Kabe Little, a Nibley resident who attended the hearing, said he doesn’t believe the statistics Morgan presented and that it’s possible to be involved in the caucus system if people want to.
“I’ve been to all caucus meetings. I just move my schedule around them, it’s not difficult,” he said. “My experience with the caucus meeting was about 50/50 male female.”
Many attendees at the hearing explained that while the caucus system does put the power to choose in the hands of a few delegates, they appreciate that someone who has time and energy to thoroughly vet candidates is representing them.
“With Count My Vote, we’ll learn about these candidates from their websites only … that just appeals to impulse voters,” Little said. “I don’t think this nation — this state, especially — is served by impulse voters.”
Morgan countered the argument that people don’t have time to do their own research on candidates. Even if they don’t, he said, the caucus system doesn’t give many of them the choice.
“It’s a problem to try to set a threshold for voter education, because everyone will define an informed voter differently,” Morgan said. “At the end of the day, voting is a constitutional right, and we should not discourage people from voting because we or anyone else think they aren’t sufficiently informed. The right to vote is not predicated upon being informed, so that’s not a viable argument.”
Utah Legislature Rep. Ed Redd said that while he’s opposed to Count My Vote, there are problems with the caucus system that need to be addressed, perhaps with reform or modification. Reaching out to the underrepresented parties Morgan listed is a necessary step, he said.
Hillyard, Redd, Butterfield and former Cache Democratic Party Chairman Vince Wickwar all agreed: A direct primary system would cater to candidates with the financial means to invest in advertising and decrease interaction between candidates and voters.
“What I really like about the caucus system is that it forces candidates to reach out,” Butterfield said. “You can’t get elected with nice campaign slogans and pretty pictures … or money.”
Redd said he really enjoyed going through the caucus system because it gave him a chance to connect with people and learn about their concerns and needs. He and many other supporters used the words “grassroots movement” to describe the caucus convention system.
“Get rid of the caucus system, you’re getting rid of the grassroots portion of politics,” Redd said. “In my opinion people get less involved, because what they say and what they do isn’t heard anymore, it doesn’t matter because they don’t have a consistent way of meeting and getting to know the candidates.”
Morgan said, and Redd agreed, that a real risk of the caucus system is that if turnout at caucus meetings is low, the extremists can take over and elect someone who doesn’t really represent the people.
A key disparity between Utah voters’ beliefs and delegate beliefs can be shown in education, Morgan said. Utah voters agree that improving the quality of K-12 education is priority No. 1. In 2010 however, Republican delegates ranked improving education as priority 11, four spot behind “getting the United States out of the United Nations.”
Redd pointed to 2010 as an example of a time when more extreme delegates had the power to oust moderate Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett in favor of tea party-backed candidate Mike Lee. In 2012, caucus meeting participation was much higher than usual. Redd said this was probably because people felt they weren’t involved enough two years prior, and because leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged caucus meeting participation over the pulpit.
Count My Vote will start collecting signatures next week, but how many they will get from Cache Valley remains to be seen. One thing is clear however: the opposition is vocal, alive and well.
“This seems clear cut, to me, so clear cut,” Little said. “I haven’t met anyone who, within five minutes of talking to me, doesn’t agree — if they’re being totally, intellectually honest with themselves.”
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