Caucus week: Push is on to bring more voices into the election process

Many hoping to get more Utahns involved in party caucuses this week

Published: Saturday, March 10 2012 1:00 p.m. MST

"We've made an unprecedented effort with a 29-county plan," that drew from historical data tapping who had attended in the past, as well as the number of people who attended, Wright said. Caucus ambassadors representing all regions of the state have been holding bipartisan training sessions since November, with presentations offered to many different audiences — from book clubs to bridge clubs.

"We really believe that we have a participation problem and we are trying to fix it," Wright said.

Sadler, who studies political science and history, attended a pair of caucus training sessions put on by Education First, a political action committee formed last year for Prosperity 2020, which is a multi-year initiative to improve education outcomes.

Nolan Karras, a co-founder, said 18 caucus training sessions were held on campuses statewide and another 45 to 50 sessions have been offered at businesses as varied as auto dealerships to banks.

Karras said the goal is to get "more average" people to attend the caucus meetings, rather than the few political diehards who typically turn out.

He likened such devotion of usual attendees to the hypothetical scenario of an earthquake happening on March 14 this year in Utah — the day before the GOP caucuses.

"The regular people will be out the next morning checking on their neighbors," he said. "The very hard-core, the ones who want to control the process, will be sitting in their lawn chairs at the high school," waiting for caucus meetings to start. "They would show up on Christmas Eve," he said. "You have a hard-core group of people who have learned they can have an out-sized interest in the outcome of the process."

Karras said the more "average Dicks and Janes," who become elected as delegates, the better education issues will fare when it comes to critical public policy decisions — because education-loving delegates will support like-minded political candidates.

"Issues that are important to us, that do well with the general public, don't do as well in the very conservative caucuses."

Utah's caucus system is unique — subject to criticism because of so little participation yet heralded by supporters who say these mass-style meetings are down-home grass-roots politics of glorious proportion.

"Our system is not broken; we just have low participation," Wright said. "We need to get more people engaged in a process that has been working for 100 years."

Utahns started holding mass meetings not long after the state was settled and the caucus-convention system has been the path to political office since then — with the exception of a 10-year-period when direct primaries were held by political parties, according to the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy research group.

Although caucus-style meetings are a tradition that hails back to colonial times, most states have moved to a direct primary system. Utah remains one of seven states that retains the convention selection process and is the only one in the country that allows political parties to eliminate a primary election for statewide or congressional offices if candidates receive a high enough percentage of the votes.

Utah requires a candidate to secure 60 percent of delegates' votes to skip a primary and go directly to the general election. If that threshold isn't met at convention, the top two vote-getters advance to the primary election. In Bennett's case, he finished third behind two other contenders and was eliminated at convention.

Most of the other states with convention systems have a lower vote requirement to move on to a primary election. Bennett, who ultimately received 27 percent of delegates' votes in the final round of balloting in 2010, would have moved into a primary election were he a candidate in states like New Mexico, which has a 20 percent threshold, and Connecticut, which requires 15 percent.

With so few having so much say in such a pivotal political decision, the caucus system has given rise to calls for reform by critics who say delegates' views are not in sync with the general population.

The "real" decisions, like Sadler and Karras point out, can happen at the convention level in an atmosphere dominated by zealous party faithful.

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