The following is a white paper prepared by Davis for Local Education group member Josh Kostial to provide an understanding of Utah's election process and the on-going debate to change it. This is an important issue for regaining local control of education because our elected officials hold so much power in this area.
Why should I care about the Count My Vote - Caucus Debate?
There has been a lot of discussion over the past year regarding Utah's voting system, with the Count My Vote initiative seeking to replace the current neighborhood caucus system. This debate centers on one thing: how should the members of political parties select their candidates? This may seem like a trivial detail, but in a state like Utah where a single political party dominates, it essentially is deciding who wins the November election. So this is actually a very important debate going on. This a summary and insight into the main concerns.
Why does it matter how an election works?
- Important differences between general and primary elections
- Many primaries don’t require the winner to receive a majority of the votes
- Huge time commitment for the much larger number of candidates in a primary than general election (Would have been over 50 candidates in some areas of Utah in 2012)
What is Utah’s caucus system and how is it different?
- The caucus is a neighborhood meeting where people elect fellow neighbors, called delegates, to represent them and help narrow down the large list of candidates
- Delegates are volunteering to spend the time to research the many candidates based on the shared principles with their neighbors
- Delegates can only be elected with majority support at the caucus meeting
- Delegates then vote at party Conventions to narrow the list to two candidates for the primary
- This ensures the winner of the primary will have majority support
- The primary can be bypassed only if a candidate has overwhelming support from the elected delegates
What is Count My Vote and what are their complaints with the caucus system?
- Count My Vote, or CMV, is an initiative to replace the current caucus system with a direct primary
- The suggested primary doesn’t require a majority to win
- Would mean everyone now has to research all 50+ candidates if they want to make an informed vote
- CMV has 4 main complaints about the caucus system
- 3 of these are easily shown to be false
- Delegates don't represent the majority of voters
- Having delegates means most voters' voices don't count
- The caucus system lowers voter turnout
- 1 of these had merit (those that can’t attend caucus can’t vote at it), but was fixed in 2013
If CMV’s claims are not true, then what is the real reason behind it?
- Those that created the CMV petition are big names in Utah politics
- CMV’s money isn’t coming from ordinary voters, but the very wealthy
- The average amount donated to CMV is $3,600 per person
- CMV would be a profitable investment for these backers because most voters don’t have the time to fully research 30-50 candidates
- Without the volunteer neighborhood delegates, many voters will turn to these same political elites to help them decide whom to vote for
- This further increases the power of the already politically powerful
- More voters will end up deciding based on billboards and TV ads
- This increases the importance of those with money to donate to politics, instead of the issues most voters care about
Count My Vote or the Caucus system?
- CMV has appealed to many with catchy slogans and flashy signs, but has little substance behind it
- If we want politics to just be about these slogans and signs, CMV provides a great example of the system we’d get
- The caucus system, on the other hand, empowers voters at our neighborhood level to really have our voices heard
- Do we want to give up on the system that has helped make Utah the best managed state in the country?
Update: What effect does SB54 have on all of this?
- In 2014, the Utah Legislature passed a so-called “compromise” bill (SB 54), that gives political parties two options
- Adopt the CMV proposal to replace the caucus-convention with a direct primary,OR
- Keep the caucus-convention, but must also...
- Hold a primary to include any other candidates that gather a set amount signatures (the signatures can even come from members of opposing political parties)
- The primary must be an “open” primary, meaning non-party members must be allowed to vote in it
- It's almost as if the entire goal of this option is to make sure the nominee doesn't actually represent the voters that chose to be in that party
- Is this how Utahns really want to pick our elected officials?
Why does it matter how an election works?
We're all familiar with the general election that occurs every two years in November, but not nearly as many know the details of how members of the political parties decide on a candidate for that election. In many states, this is accomplished with a primary election, or primary for short. In the primary, each party's members will vote for which of their candidates they think should be in the general election to face the other political parties' candidates. In some ways the primary functions similar to the general election, just within an individual political party. However, there is a fundamental difference between them, a difference that drastically changes how well the outcomes of these elections represent the people.
This fundamental difference is that a general election essentially has only two candidates running for an office (because of our de facto two party system), whereas the primary can have many candidates for a single office. For example, the 2nd Congressional District race in Utah in 2012 had 11 Republican candidates running for that single office. Fundamentally, having many candidates is a good thing, but it has two consequences on the election process that can affect the outcome of the election greatly. First, the winner of an election with only two candidates will by definition have had the majority of voter support. This is not the case for most primaries, where the winner need only have a plurality (the most votes of those running). What this means is that not only might the winner of a primary not represent the majority of voters, it's quite possible they will represent only a small minority. Going back to that 2nd District House race, a candidate could have won with less than 10% voter support if that race had been subject to a standard primary. This is an inherent flaw in the primary, but there is no good way to address this problem without requiring multiple rounds of voting to force a majority, which is difficult for an election as large as a primary.
The second consequence of multiple candidates in a primary is the much larger time commitment required of a voter to research that list of candidates. Voter participation, and most importantly informed participation, is what has made our American democratic system excel and is absolutely critical for our success to continue. In the same regards that we don't want people to stay home on election day, we also don't want them to just show up not even knowing who’s running and essentially randomly push buttons at the voting booth. A voter must know much more than a candidate's name to know if they truly represent the voter's values. Unfortunately, very few of us will personally know those running for office, which means time is required to find out where the candidate stands on positions important to us. And more importantly, if a candidate’s history shows they really represent those values or are just paying lip service to get elected. In a general election, making an informed vote is not as difficult because the information is more readily available and there are only two candidates to worry about. In a primary, however, not all candidates have been in the news for months on end to know where they stand, making information harder to come by.
Combine this with the larger number of candidates in a primary, plus the fact that there is not just one race but multiple races at the same time, and the amount of work required to properly research the candidates quickly adds up. To again use the 2012 Republican elections as an example, there were up to 31 candidates for the various state offices and another 19 candidates for a county like Salt Lake. This could mean over 50 candidates for a voter to research! Speaking from experience, while some candidates can be eliminated with only a quick 20-30 minute internet search, deciding between others could take hours spent on each candidate. It's not unrealistic to expect preparing for a primary to require 50 hours or more of time spent researching candidates alone. While I firmly believe that the vast majority of Utah's citizens would like to have this kind of time to spend on elections, the reality is most of our lives have far too many demands to make this possible. How then do we enable informed voting without the task becoming so time consuming that the average citizen is essentially excluded?
What is Utah’s caucus system and how is it different?
In Utah, the problems of both time demand and ensuring majority representation had been addressed with a hybrid caucus-convention-primary system, usually just called the caucus system. The first part of this process, the neighborhood caucus, seems to generate a lot of confusion, likely because a number of people have not attended one. However, it's actually quite simple and is probably the most important part of the process as it gives the voter a greater voice than any other system. The caucus could really be named a neighborhood election, because it's where the members of a political party within a precinct meet to elect fellow neighbors to represent them. These precincts are usually made up of just a few neighborhoods and is why the caucus gives voters such a strong voice. People are voting for their neighbors, someone they already know or who is standing directly in front of them to question. This allows voters to make an informed vote by attending a single meeting or with minimal research, instead of the hours and hours that would normally be required. These elected neighbors, called delegates, have volunteered to do that detailed research on the multitude of candidates running for office. These delegates must also receive the support of a majority of those voting in the caucus to be elected. This majority requirement is a critical element of the caucus as it ensures each delegate truly represents the majority of the precinct. It is made possible because, unlike a primary, a smaller election like a caucus can easily use multiple rounds of voting.
These neighborhood delegates will then meet at the political party's convention, where they will again use multiple rounds of voting to reduce the number of candidates for each race down to two for a primary to follow. If a candidate receives a large majority of the neighborhood delegates' votes at the convention, currently more than 60%, then the party forgoes a primary for that office, saving the expense for the general election where they will face the candidate from the other political party. At this point, the primary election proceeds like that in other states, with one important distinction. Because the field has been narrowed to only two candidates for each office, the winner of the primary will by definition have the support of a majority of the members of his political party. So not only does Utah's hybrid caucus system enable informed voting with a practical time commitment, it also ensures majority support at each step of the process, neither of which is true for the direct primary used in other states.
What is Count My Vote and what are their complaints with caucus system?
So where does Count My Vote figure into this? Well, the Count My Vote (or CMV) petition wants to change Utah's current system from the hybrid system to a direct primary only. Yes, the primary system that does not require a majority. And a primary that creates such a burden for all voters that informed voting would certainly decrease. What reason could there be to make such a change? The creators of the CMV petition claim problems with the hybrid caucus system drive this change, including: 1- Delegates don't represent the majority of voters, 2- Having delegates means most voters' voices don't count, 3-The caucus system lowers voter turnout overall, and 4-Voters that can't attend the caucus are excluded.
The first of these would be laughable considering how every step of the current system ensures majority support, but there are some that just take this at face value. Others will claim that the caucus attendees don't represent "most voters", ignoring the fact that any system, including a primary, can only represent those that actually participate. Either way, the first of these claims is certainly false. The second claim is no more defensible than the first, in that the caucus system, as already discussed, gives even greater voice to each voter than a primary possibly could because it enables voters to most easily make an informed vote.
The third claim, that the caucus system lowers voter turnout, has been much repeated in the current debate. While the creators of CMV will loudly state that voter turnout is down and the caucus system is to blame, they provide absolutely no proof to back this up. It is true that voter turnout in Utah is low, but it has followed the national average for the last 20 years which includes periods of both increases and decreases. Going back even further, Utah had the highest voter turnout in the nation in the late 1960s, though it has dropped since that time. Interestingly, that drop does not correspond to when the caucus system was adopted in Utah. The hybrid caucus system has been in place since the 1930s; ever since the last time Utah tried the idea of switching from a caucus to primary. However, voter turnout plummeted to record lows in Utah shortly after that switch to a direct primary and Utah voters brought the caucus system back. While the caucus cannot be blamed for the drop in voter participation as CMV claims, that drop does correspond with the timing of Utah becoming a single political party dominant state. Since 1976, Utah has voted for every Republican presidential candidate and both houses of the Utah legislature have had a Republican majority since 1977. And states that heavily favor a single political party do see a documented drop in voter participation, regardless of which party it is, because voters understandably don't feel like their vote will make a difference. And one further point to this, even with the hugely popular Mitt Romney on the ballot in 2012, only 39% of registered Republicans even bothered to show up and vote in the presidential primary; an election which is already a direct primary in Utah. Whatever the causes that have resulted in voter participation dropping in Utah, the caucus system simply cannot be said to be one of them.
The fourth and final claim commonly associated with the CMV petition is that the neighborhood caucus excludes those that cannot attend the meeting on the night it is held. This actually was a valid complaint prior to 2014 because there were people genuinely unable to attend who had no way of voting. However, even after both major political parties in Utah announced absentee voting would be implemented for the 2014 caucuses, the CMV organizers continued pushing their petition. This begs the question then, if the only valid criticism of the caucus system brought up by CMV had already been fixed, why did the CMV organizers continue to push the petition?
If CMV’s claims are not true, then what is the real reason behind it?
This question is probably best answered by asking it in another form, if the regular voters of Utah wouldn't benefit from switching to a primary as CMV claimed, who would? Looking at the list of people that organized CMV is a good place to start trying to answer this question. That list reads like a who's who of the politically connected and powerful in Utah and includes: A former governor and George Bush Cabinet member (Mike Leavitt), former governor's wife (Norma Matheson), another former governor (Norm Bangerter), and the director of the U of U Institute of Politics (Kirk Jowers). Supporters of the petition also include Orrin Hatch, Mitt Romney, and both the Miller and Huntsman families. If anyone in Utah could be considered the political elite, it would be this group. And those behind CMV aren't just politically connected, they are also very wealthy. Of the nearly $1.5 million raised by CMV in 2013 and early 2014, the average donation was $3,600 and over 90% of it came from donors who gave $5,000 or more. There's nothing wrong with being successful or wealthy, but this petition isn’t being driven by the common voter as they claim. It’s coming from a group that knows a good investment when they see it, whether it's in the realm of politics or business.
So what is the investment opportunity in CMV? Well, if the hybrid caucus system goes away, and the volunteer neighborhood delegates with it, as voters we've lost our best voice to help narrow down that list of 51 candidates but gained no more time to do all that research ourselves. The demands on our time have now increased, not decreased. This inevitably leads to more voters with insufficient time resorting to flashy ads and the biggest billboards to help make their decision. Billboards and ads funded by those with the wealth to donate large amounts of money in politics. Others may try and get more informed by listening to the political experts, those "in the know" that have been doing this for years. Experts like former governors and other politicians. And that's the payoff in the CMV investment, the politically powerful and influential become vastly more powerful and influential; until those wishing to get elected will appeal not to the voters but to these elites that will become the key force in who gets elected.
Count My Vote or the Caucus system
The Count My Vote organizers have done an effective job of using flashing signs and catchy slogans to try and win support for their initiative. They have appealed to many of us voters on the surface of the issues, but on closer examination the initiative lacks any substance to back up its claims. In that regards, CMV is a good analogy for the political system we'd get from it, flashy and expensive marketing with little substance. The initiative would undermine the very idea of real voter representation it claims to be working towards. It would take an effective hybrid caucus system, one that has helped lead to Utah's standing as the best managed state in the country, and replace it with a system that leads to politicians even more dependent on big money donors and an elite political class instead of the voters they're supposed to represent. Much of the rest of the country uses the direct primary CMV is proposing; and much of the rest of the country is in a political shambles. Instead of trying to follow in the footsteps of states like California and New York, Utah should be proud to lead the way in demonstrating what real accountability looks like.
Update: What effect does SB54 have on all of this?
Since the time this was originally written, the Utah Legislature has added fuel to the fire of this issue. In the 2014 Utah state legislative session, during the heat of the CMV-caucus debate, some politicians rushed through a bill they claimed was a "compromise" between the two sides. This bill, SB 54, gave political parties two options for selecting their nominee: (1) Adopt the CMV proposal and completely get rid of the caucus-convention system. Or (2) Be allowed to hold a caucus and convention, but then you must have a primary that includes any other candidates that need to have only gathered a set amount of signatures. And these signatures do not even need to come from the same party as the candidate; they can be gathered just like any other petition, in front of the supermarket, a sporting event, etc. As anyone that has watched the late night talk shows has seen, many people will sign just about any petition put in front of them to make the person asking go away. As if that was not enough, the primary must also be an "open" primary. This means that again someone does not even need to be a member of the party to have a say in the party's nominee. It's almost as if the entire goal of this option is to make sure the party's nominee doesn't actually represent the voters that chose to be in that party.
So the supposed compromise of SB54 was really just a threat, give the CMV organizers exactly what they want or let your party's candidate be decided by those that don't even share your party's principles. It sounds like the only compromise here was in the ethics of the politicans that voted for this bill. Disappointingly, the push to repeal the disaster implemented by SB 54 has not been in the news daily like the push for CMV was. This is because the politicians and media were able to sell it is a compromise to anyone that wasn't able to dig into the details. However, there is a heated resistance to it and this resistance has come from all aspects of the political sprectrum, including Democrats and Republicans. In fact, both the Republican and Constitution parties have filed a lawsuit asserting the state does not have the authority to tell private political parties how to select nominees. There has been talk of bills being advanced during the 2015 legislative session to fix this as well. However, because SB 54/CMV has the backing of the politically well connected, it will require an effort on the part of the people at large to convince them to correct it. Any one concerned about this should contact their State Senator and State Representative and ask them to restore the caucus-convention system.