Poll: Half of Utahns not interested in attending party caucuses

Published: Friday, March 9 2012 8:00 p.m. MST

Henry S. Williams, right, laughs while counting votes at a Republican caucus March 3, 2012 in Yakima, Wash. (Shannon Dininny, Associated Press) Henry S. Williams, right, laughs while counting votes at a Republican caucus March 3, 2012 in Yakima, Wash. (Shannon Dininny, Associated Press)

Copyright 2012 Deseret News

Editor's note: Find information for upcoming political party caucus meetings in Utah here. Find a basic guide to understanding Utah's mass meetings here.

SALT LAKE CITY — The majority of Utah voters, 60 percent, have never attended a political caucus meeting and half said they will not this year either, according to a new Deseret News/KSL poll.

The poll by Dan Jones & Associates also found that 65 percent of Utah voters didn't know what days the caucus meetings were scheduled — and even more, 72 percent, didn't know where the meetings were being held.

"Predictable, but sad" was the reaction of Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime critic of the caucus system as a cause of the state's low voter turnout.

"Utah has to make its democracy more accessible to more people in order to get us back engaged," Jowers said, calling for changes in the system that would result in more primary elections.

Utah State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said he was "greatly saddened" by the poll numbers.

"I think they are revealing in black and white what we have intuitively thought for a long time, that the caucus system is not doing what it's supposed to be doing," Dabakis said. "It's certainly not engendering the involvement of the people of Utah in their government."

Dabakis said Utah's minority party would start discussions as the election season gets under way about "whether the caucus system should be modified or changed dramatically because clearly the train is off the tracks."

But Utah State GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said the poll doesn't reflect the impact of the party's new $300,000 campaign to encourage bigger turnout at next week's caucus meetings.

"We're really optimistic about it," Wright said. "The change that needs to be made is in making people more aware. ... We've got to do a better job of educating people."

Democrats will gather Tuesday, at caucus meetings open to any voter, while the Republican caucuses on Thursday are closed to anyone not a member of the GOP.

Poll respondents gave a wide range of reasons for not participating in the selection of the Republican and Democratic delegates who will, in many cases, end up choosing each party's nominees for local, state and federal offices.

"Not interested," 18 percent said, followed by 13 percent who cited work obligations and 5 percent who said they would be uncomfortable attending the political gatherings in their neighborhoods.

Most respondents, 45 percent, offered pollsters their own reasons, including that caucus participation doesn’t matter. The poll, conducted Feb. 29-March 1 of 406 registered voters, has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

Wright said the goal of the Republican Party's TV and radio commercials, yard signs announcing caucus locations in every precinct, and flyers dropped off at every GOP household is to boost participation by 72 percent, to 100,000.

"I put my money where my mouth is," Wright said. "My solution is, let's get out and knock on doors and invite people to attend."

Jowers, though, said more participation in the caucus system isn't the answer.

"No matter how many people turn out for the caucus night on March 15, the system still caps participation because only so many people, less than 4,000, can be elected as delegates," he said. "Then they have all the power."

Jowers said the biggest problem with the system is that "there's no alternative route to the primary ballot," he said. "I feel like we need more primaries, not fewer. That way, there is at least a meaningful election for Utahns to get involved in."

Candidates can avoid a primary election by winning 60 percent or more of the delegate vote at the party convention. Jowers said that threshold should be raised to 80 percent.

And Jowers and other Republicans have also proposed circulating an initiative petition statewide to change the law to allow candidates to petition for a place on the primary ballot.

They set aside the effort to give lawmakers and party leaders a chance to make changes. Jowers noted the issue was not addressed in the just-concluded 2012 legislative session.

"It does take a little bit of 'profile in courage' for elected officials to take this step because right now, delegates do control elections," he said.

Dabakis said the only people being served by the system "are the extremist elements of the Republican Party that have completely taken over … much to the horror of many Republicans."

The Democratic Party leader said that's led to a lack of participation by both Democrats and Republicans. "They just throw up their hands and say it doesn't matter," he said.

Between now and the 2013 State Democratic Party Convention, Dabakis said he wants his party to consider everything from "dumping the caucuses entirely and having everything done through primaries, to leaving the system the way it is to tweaking it."

Wright said the GOP "doesn't want to be told by the government how we should be conducting our affairs" and said allowing candidates to petition for a place on the primary ballot would be a step backwards.

"The Republican Party will figure out its problems. It always has," Wright said. "What we don't know is if what we're going to do is going to make a difference. The only number that matters is how many people show up next week."

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