SALT LAKE CITY — Many in Utah have mobilized to increase participation in neighborhood caucus meetings, in what may be the last election under the state's current system.
SB54 — a bill allowing those who gather enough signatures to become candidates without attending a party caucus or convention meeting — takes effect on Jan. 1. This year neighborhood caucus meetings will move forward as usual: Democrats will meet Tuesday and Republicans will meet Thursday.
Utah Republicans sent out email reminders, conducted trainings, created commercials and went to social media to encourage people to participate. The state's Democratic party urged participation through phone calls, postcards, Facebook and Google ads. Republicans and Democrats both allow people to pre-register online.
These efforts to drive participation may be rooted in the influence wielded by the almost 4,000 Republican and more than 2,000 Democratic delegates in selecting the next wave of Utah's leaders.
"(Delegates) are by far the most powerful voters in America," said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Jowers is one of those who backed the Count My Vote initiative, a group that collected signatures from people who wanted to see reform in the state's nominating system. Senate Bill 54 was what Utah legislators offered as a compromise to the initiative. It keeps the caucus-convention system, allows an alternative way to get on the ballot and gives unaffiliated voters a chance to vote in the state's primary elections.
"I think challengers will have a better time under the new system than they have in the past. And the reason is it gives them more options,” Jowers said of next year's system.
Former Utah Sen. Bob Bennet said he would have benefited from a bill like SB 54. Polls at the time indicated that he would have "won a primary handily over any of the candidates who competed in the convention," he said. But he failed to win a place in the primary when he was defeated by current Sen. Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater, who emerged from the caucus with support and each won a place in the primary at the GOP state convention.
Opinions remain divided on future effects of SB54, signed by Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert Monday, including whether or not possible legal action will see it invalidated. However, people on all sides of the debate agree that publicity surrounding caucuses and the Count My Vote initiative has stimulated interest in the political process.
“I think you’re going to see a higher than expected turnout because this whole Count My Vote effort has galvanized a lot of people to want to attend caucuses,” said Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans.
Evans said the Republican Party hopes to see as many people show up for this election cycle as came out in 2012.
The caucus system is an important way for the party to renew itself, according to Evans.
"The whole foundation of the caucus system from the Republican perspective is for our registered Republicans to re-engage with the party and reaffirm the platform and the principles of the party. To exchange ideas and to promote issues and candidates. To dialogue and learn from one another. That’s how we remain a strong party,” he said.
It will be up to the courts to determine whether or not the Legislature has the power through SB54 to tell a private organization how to choose their nominees, he said.
Utah's Democratic Party has not taken a position on the Count My Vote Initiative or on SB54, according to the party's executive director Matt Lyon. They do not think the bill will affect the caucuses this year or in the future, he said.
“We really felt that Count My Vote was addressing a problem with extremes in the Republican caucus and the Republican Party,” Lyon said.
The state's Democratic caucus meetings are open to all voters, affiliated or not. He sees the neighborhood meetings as a way for people to become involved, get to know their neighbors and to meet local candidates.
"Just come and listen. There's no blood oath. You don't have to sign anything," he said.
A process that would further open the primary system gives people a chance to learn more about both political parties and make educated decisions, he said.
One man sees the potential change in caucus meetings as problematic. James Humphreys said the current caucus-convention system gives a voice to the voiceless and allows someone like him, a media and public relations chair of Protect our Neighborhoods, to get on the ballot.
With caucus meetings, candidates are required to reach out to those living in remote communities in order to secure their vote in the party convention, he said. Gathering signatures, on the other hand, only requires name recognition.
His current bid for Weber County Commissioner is only possible because of the caucus-convention system, he said. He would not have the influence to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot otherwise.
“The fact that I have good idea or passion or drive are irrelevant. I am stymied before I get out of the gate because I do not have money or fame,” he said.
Unaffiliated voters should find out which party they identify with most and join, even if they don't agree with everything, he said. He cited his own experience as an openly gay man who is a registered Republican to underscore his point. Humphries said he is concerned the new system will encourage more people to vote without being informed.
“I’m worried about the trend that says all you have to do is vote,” he said.
Bennett said he thinks the compromise will have the opposite effect.
“It opens the system up and will provide more interest in the election. Because in a one-party state like Utah we’ve seen people say, 'It doesn’t matter if I vote.'”
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