Pignanelli: It's springtime a season that prompted humans to perform various cultural rites over the millennia. The fun and less dangerous activities (i.e. coloring eggs) is a 4,000-year-old tradition we maintain with glee. However, our society has abandoned building bonfires and sacrificing animals to celebrate the warmer weather. Our state needs to eliminate another outdated biannual spring ritual: the neighborhood party caucuses (scheduled again this Tuesday).
Every two years, the political parties schedule meetings for loyal activists to elect delegates and officers to attend county and state conventions. This is a holdover from the Progressive Era, established to thwart the power of party bosses by enhancing the grassroots representation of individual members. These objectives may have been accomplished for most of last century, but for the 21st century the caucus is an outdated aberration of democracy. A handful of delegates can determine the fate of the candidate. Special-interest groups and extremists from the parties stack the meetings to dominate the proceedings. The dynamics provide a soapbox for the political fringe in selecting delegates, with humorous results. GOP delegates oftentimes must ensure they sleep with a copy of the Constitution under the pillow while Democrats tout their ecological sound vehicles and recycling habits. Further, the meetings are less frequently held in people's homes, and now conducted by legislative district, thereby eliminating the "neighborhood" sentiment. Modern lifestyles prevent the broad-based participation in the evening caucuses. Thus, most states have dumped the local precinct system, allowing for a primary election to determine the party's flag bearers. Necessary barriers to candidacy (i.e. higher filing fees, sponsor signatures) weed out the less serious candidates. A primary allows easy access for a broad spectrum of interests, not just hard-core activists, in determining candidates for the general election.
A mandatory primary also questions the need for another ancient activity: the party convention. Modern technology provides
unprecedented opportunities for people and movements to communicate. Stuffing the normal convention activities of candidate selection, platform development and officials' speeches into a Saturday event is inefficient. Further, most politically minded citizens cannot participate in the time-consuming rigors that a convention delegate requires.The 2008 presidential campaigns are instructing us that citizens will actively utilize alternative means to participate in the political process. Utahns are more than ready to exercise their political rights in a system that reflects their lifestyle while promoting mainstream ideas and candidates. The precinct caucus should be eliminated and placed in the museum of outdated political artifacts, somewhere between paper ballots and LaVarr's brain.
Webb: Utah's oft-criticized election process is rather like democracy itself: It's the worst system in the world except for all the others.
Generally, the people who like it least are those who can't win like Frank and his Democratic buddies. If you can't win by playing by the rules then, of course, you want to change the rules.
In truth, Utah's election system works well both for citizens and candidates. It provides just the right mix of direct democracy and influence by people who really care and take time to get involved. Anyone can participate in the process, and all are encouraged to do so. But in the early stages it is those who prove they care, and who sacrifice an evening to get involved, who have disproportionate influence. What's wrong with that?
On the candidate side, the system also works well. It allows someone who isn't well known and who isn't independently wealthy to still have a decent shot at winning an election, provided the candidate is sharp and capable. If Frank had his way, our candidates would almost exclusively be multimillionaires trying to buy elections with 30-second TV sound bites.
As it is, a capable candidate who works extremely hard and has a good message can spend relatively little money and still make his or her case before party caucus attendees and delegates. A candidate of modest means who gets through the convention has then shown enough success that raising money becomes easier for the primary and/or general election.
In Utah, thankfully, the barrier to entry in politics is considerably lower than in states where all candidates go directly to a big, expensive primary election. Those races become high-cost media events where the richest guy usually wins.
I'm not buying Frank's contention that Utah's system is dominated by the extremes. True, the folks who show up at party caucuses are people who care about their state and country, but there are plenty of mainstream people who care a lot.
Point of fact: In 2004, the two gubernatorial candidates who emerged from the GOP state convention were both moderates. Who says the right wing dominates the caucuses and convention?
What's more, so many interest groups try to "stack" the party caucuses the UEA, PTA, conservatives, Realtors, environmental groups, voucher supporters, banks, credit unions, in addition to candidates at all levels that it's impossible for one group to dominate.Our system exemplifies grassroots politics at its finest. No one is excluded. If you want to be a player, attend your party caucus on Tuesday night.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: [email protected]. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. E-mail: [email protected]