Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) meets with the House Majority Caucus of the Utah Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 1, 2019.

Sen. Mike Lee’s amicus brief arguing that the United States Supreme Court should have overturned the verdicts of the district and circuit court rulings in favor of SB54, which established Utah’s current dual-track party nominating system, is, in many respects, exactly the kind of engagement with social science we wish were more often a part of the discourse. He cites excellent political science research and makes his case well. We were lucky enough to be considered part of the literature he cites, a fact for which we are quite grateful.

But our enthusiasm for the senator’s engagement with political science makes this next comment a bit awkward: We do not agree with the way he cited our research. We argued in a 2015 article in The British Journal of Political Science that primary elections are more reflective of the broad swath of voters who identify with a political party than are caucuses. Both observational and experimental evidence showed that caucuses attract not only a smaller group of participants, but also those who are more ideologically extreme. Voters who took more moderate issue positions were, by contrast, substantially more likely to prefer the primary to the caucus system. In this sense, primary electorates were clearly more representative of the party at large in the country. These results were based on a national study, and not anything particular to Utah, but obviously recent changes in Utah’s nomination system are relevant.

To be clear, we do not believe caucuses are inherently worse (or better) than primaries. Indeed, one of the things we found was that people who participated in caucuses liked such procedures very much and preferred them as an institution — a fact that is echoed in the enthusiasm of proponents of the Utah neighborhood caucus system.

But the problem is that these beliefs are not shared by most voters. In our study of a representative sample of Americans, most people thought caucuses were likely to be worse in a number of ways — less fair, less open to different points of view, more favorable to special interests and less likely to make the best decision about the party’s nominee. In sum, people rated primaries more positively than caucuses on every evaluative measure we examined.

This brings us to our disagreement with Sen. Lee.

He argues in the amicus brief that we found that “caucus goers are far more similar to the party’s core, and accordingly its values, than are general primary voters.” It is certainly true that we believe caucus goers are more ideologically consistent — this was one of the key findings of the paper — but we do not really know how to decide what the party’s “core” is. Indeed, this is not a term we used in the article because it is so difficult to define. And it is precisely the question at stake in the debates over SB54.

Should the party’s core be considered the broad swath of voters who identify with the party? The elected officials who adopt the party’s label? Only certain elected officials or certain voters? Perhaps only the official paid employees of the party? We have no idea how to settle that particular question, and this is why political scientists typically speak of several different faces of the party (the party in the electorate, the party in government, and the party as an organization). The “core” of the party has several different and potentially conflicting meanings, and ideological consistency is not the only standard for making this determination.

While we respect Sen. Lee’s argument that the true core is the type of people who show up at caucuses, the Utah Legislature, by passing SB54, has shown that it favors a different view. And while we certainly agree with Sen. Lee’s argument that rights of free association are to be taken very seriously, one also has to balance that argument against the equally old and equally important tradition that “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof” (U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 4). This tradition actually predates the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Colonial legislatures typically required certain amounts of property for a candidate to be placed on the ballot (and other amounts for voters). While we might find some of these restrictions unacceptable in today’s world, they do inarguably establish the tradition that legislatures may place restrictions on who does or does not get onto an election ballot.

This returns us to the heart of the question about who is considered eligible or ineligible to vote in a particular state’s elections. Any decision a legislature — or a court — makes about who is or is not allowed to participate will involve drawing some lines that include or exclude people. Our argument in the cited article was never designed to prove who was or was not a “core” member of a party. Reasonable people disagree about this important question. No doubt some people of good will would put the line in one place, and others would put it in another place. A state legislature (backed by the U.S. Congress) is tasked with the decision of setting up the rules for any electoral system and so we are not surprised that a representative body, like a legislature, privileges representation as a value in elections.

34 comments on this story

And that was the main point of our article: Representation is a core value for our political system. And on that point, we wrote that our analysis “raises the concern that caucuses do not meet even the minimal standard of fairness in representation: they systematically deter the moderate, less consistent voters, and people appear to have misgivings about the procedure.” Put differently, the choice of nominating institutions is not neutral. The features of the nominating institutions we adopt will attract (or repel) some types of voters, affecting not only the size of the group that nominates but its characteristics as well. As legislatures and now courts make their decisions, it is worth reflecting on how the choice of institutions shapes who participates (and who doesn’t) and how that participation will affect the relationship between elected officials and their constituents, regardless of whatever we believe about the “core” of the party.