Political circles in Utah were all abuzz today after ABC4 News reported that the legislative redistricting committee was about to turn its attention to axing Utah’s caucus system and replacing it with a public primary. The news agency did not reveal its source for this rumor. When contacted, several members of the redistricting committee said they had not heard about any such planned discussions.
The caucus/convention system is practiced in only a few states today, but is considered to be a quintessential grassroots method of choosing candidates for the general election ballot. Every two years, neighbors meet in caucuses (neighborhood mass meetings) to elect delegates who will represent them at political party conventions. These delegates are tasked with vetting the candidates and voting at conventions to select their Party’s candidate. If a clear winner is not chosen by the delegates, then a primary election is held.
Rampant rumors of a caucus system overthrow prompted the redistricting committee chairs (Representative Sumsion and Senator Okerlund) to post a clarification on the Utah House of Representatives blog this afternoon:
“As chairs of the Redistricting Committee, we have had no discussions of this issue, we have not placed this item on the Committee’s agenda, nor do we intend to consider this issue at future meetings.
“The purpose of the Redistricting Committee is to help the Legislature meet its constitutional duty to divide the state into congressional, legislative, and state school board districts that are equal in population to ensure equal representation for all citizens. The focus of the Redistricting Committee is completely and exclusively on redistricting, and to conduct the redistricting process in a manner that is fair and open. We will resist any efforts to divert the time and attention of the Committee to other issues.”
It appears that the caucus/convention system is safe for today, which is a good thing – this system has several benefits, including:
- Decreasing the influence of money on elections by allowing candidates who are not wealthy to compete effectively. The smaller size of the delegate pool allows more great candidates to participate, where a state-wide primary system would discourage great candidates who may not be well-funded.
- Candidates tend to be better vetted in the caucus/convention system because they are able to associate and campaign within the smaller, dedicated delegate pool in an in-depth, direct method that generally would not be possible within a state-wide system.
- Encourages more accountability from elected officials, who are in contact with and report back to delegates.
- The caucus system saves the state millions in tax dollars that would be required for a statewide primary election.
The caucus/convention system has been a source of debate for years, but after the entrenched Senator Bennett was ousted by delegates last year, incumbent politicians sat up and began to pay attention to the system that could make or break their political careers.
Where are the rumors coming from that warn of danger to the caucus/convention system? Who can say. There are many politicians currently concerned with their success or failure in the 2012 elections, including Senator Hatch and several Utah Republican elected officials concerned about the ramifications for voting for Utah’s amnesty bill, HB 116.
What can definitely be said is that any effort to do away with the caucus/convention system would be met with tenacious resistance from those Utahns involved in politics at its most basic grassroots level.