Challenge to caucus system to dominate state GOP convention

Published: Saturday, May 11 2013 11:48 p.m. MDT

"I'll vote 'no' out of protest for the fact that the party is failing in its job to be deliberative," Philpot said. "What's been happening is this issue is being fast-tracked by Thomas Wright."

Philpot called the initiative "a scare tactic" and said he believes the Count My Vote effort will go forward no matter what happens at the state convention.

"They are threatening the party," he said. "That's not a good way to increase participation."

Republicans, Philpot said, should fight to keep the current caucus and convention system.

"It requires desire and commitment in order to participate," he said. "I have not seen that it's difficult to participate in the political process. I think it's easy to participate for people who choose and are willing."

But the Republicans leading Count My Vote disagree.

Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, has been talking for years about the link between the caucus and convention system and the state's low voter turnout.

Campaigning, he said, is focused almost exclusively on party delegates in the hope of avoiding a primary.

"All of the attention of the candidates, parties and outside groups is focused on just a couple of thousand people," Jowers said.

Also, he said, many people are precluded from participating in neighborhood caucus meetings where the delegate selection process begins because they're held on a single night.

Jowers, chairman of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy charged with finding ways to boost turnout, said the system was seen as "the 800-pound gorilla of our voter malaise."

But, he said, the issue "was quickly seen as too controversial and too complex to deal with in light of all the other recommendations we were also pursuing," and the commission did not recommend changes to the caucus and convention system.

The Count My Vote effort brought together Jowers and others concerned about the impact on voter turnout, including Leavitt and political consultant LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News.

"The system is more susceptible to those who tend to be activists and more passionate," Webb said. "The reality is not everyone is that way, but they still care about their country and their state, and they still want their voices known."

Even supporters of the current system acknowledge it can be unduly influenced by outside groups if Utah Republicans don't participate in large numbers. Outside groups helped oust former Sen. Bob Bennett at the GOP's 2010 convention.

FreedomWorks, a national tea party organization, tried to do the same to Sen. Orrin Hatch last year and succeeded in forcing him into a primary, but Hatch was re-elected to a seventh term.

Utah County GOP Vice Chairman-elect Daryl Acumen blogged in 2012 about how easy the caucus and convention system can be manipulated "by well-funded organizations with an agenda," citing FreedomWorks as the "most blatant example."

FreedomWorks, Acumen said, sent out a mailer instructing Republicans on how to become a delegate so they could help "give Orrin Hatch the same send-off we gave Bob Bennett."

A statement by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urging attendance at political caucus meetings helped both Republicans and Democrats see record turnouts at the March 2012 meetings.

"This is the way the caucus system should work," Acumen said. "The bottom line is this: Our enemy is apathy. If people are not getting out, a small group of folks can have a magnified impact."

Heather Williamson, FreedomWorks Utah state coordinator, said the organization doesn't have an official position on the changes to the caucus and convention system, but most members like it the way it is.

Williamson said she doesn't necessarily agree that the current system has worked well for FreedomWorks.

"It's just so funny when people think you're manipulating the system when you're just trying to get people more involved in the system," she said.

Utah Democrats won't hold their state convention until June, and state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis has already said delegates will choose between either keeping the current system or doing away with it entirely.

"This clearly has nothing to do with Democrats," Dabakis said of the initiative effort. "We're collateral damage."

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

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