Robert Bennett: Caucuses overshadow the elections, Count My Vote aims to empower voters

Published: Monday, Feb. 3 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

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In other states it’s too early to be talking about final election results, but in Utah the most crucial election to determine who will take office in 2015 is only six weeks away. I’m speaking of the Republican precinct caucuses.

Caucus night will be March 20. The convention attended by the delegates chosen at those caucuses will be held April 26. Convention rules can give a Republican candidate the nomination then and there. Since winning the Republican nomination almost always means winning the election in one-party Utah, what happens in Republican caucuses usually determines who the office holders will be.

That makes the November election irrelevant for the majority of our public officials. Statistics on voter turnout suggest it has become irrelevant for a majority of our potential voters as well; caucus night has replaced it as the election that matters most. That’s why Sen. Orrin Hatch started his campaign to influence attendees a year and a half before caucuses were held in 2012. He spent more on that effort than he did to win the general election.

There won’t be much for caucuses to do this year. If there is any drama at all it will be in the 4th Congressional District, where at least two candidates have announced their intention to seek the seat vacated by Jim Matheson.

In the other three congressional races, the Republican incumbents have not drawn any significant opposition and the only statewide office on the ballot is for attorney general, where it is widely expected that newly appointed Sean Reyes will be nominated without opposition. There are not likely to be any surprises.

Still, for many Utahns, the caucuses are a problem. “Count My Vote” is a movement led by those who believe that the current system is far too exclusionary. They don’t like having things locked up in April by a tiny percentage of Utah voters. They want to sidestep the caucuses as the deciding factor in the nominating process and replace them with an open primary, one that would empower far more voters than those who turn out on caucus night.

If this method were used, getting on the ballot in important statewide races would be easier and cheaper than it is now. In 1992, it cost me $750,000 to get through the convention. In 2012, Hatch spent more than $4 million to do the same thing.

Under Count My Vote, Hatch and anyone who wanted to run against him could get their names before the voters for a fraction of those amounts. Instead of being anointed by a selected few, Utah’s candidates — every office, every election year — would be chosen in a primary election open to every voter.

Current polls show that roughly 70 percent of Utah voters support this idea, but that does not mean the Count My Vote initiative is sure to pass. It has yet to get on the ballot. To do that, it needs more than 130,000 signatures, which must be obtained from voters in all parts of the state. As it happens, the deadline for those signatures to be gathered is roughly the same as the date of the Republican state convention.

Consequently, this year, Utah’s most important political contest will not take place in the caucuses but on street corners, in parking lots and in homes, where the signature gatherers do their work one contact at a time. They must clear a high bar in a short time frame. It will be interesting to see how well they do, but, as usual, Utahns will pretty much know what’s likely to happen in November by the end of April.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a Fellow at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

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