A recurring argument from those defending the present caucus/convention system in Utah is that it is a “republican” (small “r”) procedure; that is, it works through elected representatives rather than as a pure democracy. The Constitution specifically requires that every state in the union have “a republican form of government” because the Founders were suspicious of pure democracy.
When they were first established, Utah’s caucuses were held before the filing date, which meant that those attending them did not know who the candidates for office were going to be. In theory, that meant that delegates would not be chosen because of any candidate allegiance but solely on the basis of their overall probity and wise judgment. They were free to exercise that judgment as they pleased at the convention.
However, many Utahns were dissatisfied with that. They wanted more of a voice in determining who would emerge from the convention. The caucus date was therefore changed to come after the filing date so that attendees could grill potential delegates on their positions with respect to each race. A potential delegate can still seek election as an uncommitted free agent, but in most of the current caucuses, delegates now promise to go to the convention and vote the way a majority of the attendees want them to.
History shows that a significant number of them don’t keep that promise.
Take my first race in 1992. Joe Cannon had at least a year’s head start on the other three of us who were running. After the caucuses were held, it appeared that his efforts had been so successful that 70 percent of the delegates would vote for him and give him the nomination without a primary. If we were going to survive, the rest of us had to get some Cannon delegates to change their minds.
We had the opportunity to try because the convention votes by secret ballot. A delegate can promise his caucus attendees that he will vote for John Doe and then cast his ballot for Jane Roe without anyone knowing. All three of us went to work on those who had given Cannon their pledges, as well as those who were undecided.
It worked. Cannon came in first at the convention, but with 46 percent, not 70 percent. I got just enough votes to come in second, which qualified me for the primary, where I won the nomination. That sequence has not been unusual in close statewide races; Hatch, Leavitt and Lee all came in second at convention before winning their primaries. The convention does not necessarily represent party voters as a whole.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with changing one’s mind. It’s a proper thing for an elected representative to do when he is presented with new information. However, in a truly “republican form of government,” if he does so, his action is on the record. He can be held accountable for it by the voters at the next election. In Utah, a delegate can get himself elected time and time again by promising caucus attendees to vote the way they want and then go contrary to their wishes whenever he pleases. That’s not fair to caucus attendees who get what they consider a good faith pledge only to have their delegate secretly vote a different way.
We live in an age of open communication and open debate; correspondingly, we should have an open primary. That would empower Utahns to express themselves on aspirants for their party’s nominations without having an unaccountable middleman between them.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company