In mid-March, a small army of interested citizens will attend neighborhood precinct caucuses to elect delegates to their party's statewide convention, where candidates for nearly all public offices will be nominated for a place on the ballot. Democrats will caucus March 13, with Republicans meeting March 15.
It is a fundamental, grass-roots exercise in representative government, but in Utah it has become something more than a preliminary event in a longer process of vetting candidates and issues.
In fact, in recent years, it has virtually leap-frogged the democratic process to become the nearly-determining factor in which candidates land on a ballot and, in most cases, find themselves elected to office eight months hence.
In deference to such massive influence, a Utah legislator wants to encourage greater citizen participation by removing obstacles that may deter caucus attendance in the form of conflicting public and private meetings.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, calls his House Bill 90 "Utah's Real-Election-Day Education for Neighborhood Caucuses Act," thereby asserting recognition of how important, if not imperative, the caucus meetings have become to the overall process.
The proposed law does not attack the caucus system, but seeks to open it up to greater participation. That is not to say the system is without its vehement critics.
A number of advocacy groups that seek reform of the system say it allows well-organized party factions to dominate the selection process and bypass the will of the larger body politic. They point to the case of former Sen. Robert Bennett, who was ousted by delegates at the 2010 Republican convention even though polls showed he had considerably more support among GOP voters than the candidate who won the nomination.
Love it or hate it, the system is rare and peculiar. Only six other states select candidates through a similar process. Most states hold direct primary elections, and while Utah holds party primary contests as well, current rules allow any candidate who receives at least 60 percent of the delegate vote at the convention to bypass a primary race and go directly on the general election ballot as the party's nominee.
The rise in influence wielded by caucus-goers has corresponded, coincidentally or not, with a dramatic decline in voter turnout rates in Utah. Once among the highest the nation, Utah recently has plummeted to the lower echelon of turnout rankings. In the 2000 general election, 55 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. In 2010, the number fell to 37 percent.
Rep. Powell's measure deserves consideration because it seeks simply to encourage more participation. It would prevent government entities from scheduling public meetings on caucus evenings, and would formally encourage private organizations to also eschew caucus-night meetings.
It is not clear how many more people may attend their precinct meetings as a result of the bill, but it is a step in a direction with which it is hard to argue, whether you believe the caucus system is one that empowers citizens, or leaves them convinced their vote carries hollow weight.