Utah’s precinct caucuses: The good, the bad and the ugly

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Mark Stoddard has had enough.

After years of passionate political involvement, in positions that range from executive director of a grassroots political organization in Washington D.C. to serving as a district chair of the 67th Republican District of Utah, Stoddard is walking away.

Stoddard says that the political apathy of those he was serving was just too much for him to deal with.

“We can rant and rave and think it’s the best thing in the world,” Stoddard said. “But at the end of the day, we aren’t here to shove it down their throats.”

Stoddard oversaw 27 Republican caucus precincts in Utah County during his time as district chair. His main responsibility was to conduct meetings and encourage participation in Utah’s caucus convention system, a system that he loves.

If the details of the caucus convention system are a little bit blurry to you, you’re not alone. Most, (some local leadership says as much as 90-95 percent) of people don’t participate in local caucuses largely due to lack of understanding.

Mark Stoddard (Left) talks with former Senator Orrin Hatch. Stoddard has long been very active in politics until recent lack of participation discouraged him from continuing such a high level of participation.

Utah County Republican Party Chairman Rob Craig, somewhat of a local expert on the caucus convention system at the county level, says the theory of the system is good, but in practice there are some major issues taking place.

“A major problem is participation. People have lives and are busy and making time for meetings is difficult,” Craig said.

Craig also mentioned that when new people do come out to caucus meetings, they can get lost in political disputes brought up by more seasoned longtime participants. As meetings become less simple and stray from the true purpose of the system (which Craig says is to promote unity in the party) less and less people find themselves participating actively.

With all that said, it’s time for a deep look into what the caucus system is, why it’s important, what some of the challenges facing it are, and what Senate Bill 54 did to alter the system.

What is the caucus convention system, and why is it important?

Before every election cycle, each party must decide who will represent them on a ballot. In Utah’s case, the Republican Party selects these candidates at a massive gathering called the state convention.

Not just anyone can show up to the state convention and vote for the candidate they want to represent their party. The people that vote at this meeting are specially selected delegates from individual precincts around the state.

“In Utah County, each precinct is supposed to have anywhere from 700 to 1,200 people,” Craig said. “In Utah County, alone there are 275 precincts.”

These neighborhood-like areas select their delegate at a caucus meeting every election cycle. The only requirements for delegates is that they be over the age of 18 and are registered members of the party they are participating in. The delegate selected on caucus night, is then responsible for representing his or her precinct and selecting candidates accordingly.

Stoddard says that delegates should not take the assignment lightly.

“If you’re not going to attend all the meetings, or go to all the debates and interviews with candidates with an open mind trying to understand and report back to your precinct, then don’t stand for election,” Stoddard said. “This is a research job.”

Once selected, a delegate’s responsibility is to find the candidate that best represents the citizens from the delegate’s precinct.

The Republican Party has a system in place to assist these delegates with this duty. Running this system is one of Craig’s main responsibilities as county chair.

“We do everything we can to assist our delegates in doing their job,” Craig said. “We educate them about the state convention and we host meet-and-greet events where candidates come and interact with delegates.”

At the convention, a candidate must win 60% of the vote from the delegates to get on the ballot, this number used to be 70% up until 2000 when it was changed.

“Essentially what this means,” Craig said. “Is that in order to go to a primary, you only need to get 40% of the delegates to vote for you at convention. It used to just be 30% which was even more doable.”

What are the biggest problems in the system?

With approximately 1,500 delegates in Utah County, Craig said that even Mountain View High School, which has the highest capacity of any school in the county, couldn’t host a meeting “without the fire marshal showing up.”

"The biggest problem, in a word, is participation." Rob Craig

In spite of this issue, Craig says that party leadership counts on low participation when selecting venues for delegate meetings, renting out places with only a fraction of the capacity of the entire delegate body.

The lack of participation spans across virtually every level within the system. From individual precinct caucus nights, to meetings among the delegates themselves.

Craig said the night he was elected, only about 900 of the 1,500 delegates showed up. Of those delegates that did attend, Craig earned about 430 votes to win his seat as county chair.

“I think it’s a huge problem that people can be elected as leaders with only 34 percent of delegates voting for them just because people don’t show up and vote,” Stoddard said about situations such as Craig’s.

Another major problem with the caucus convention system is the divide that can take place between fellow party-members. This issue is somewhat tied to the first in that low participation numbers among certain types of voters leave a majority by default of the voters that show up faithfully.

State Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Davis) says that certain voices in the party can be amplified because of their enthusiastic participation in the caucuses which is why he voted for Senate Bill 54 (Read more about the bill at the end of the article), a bill that proposes a signature path for candidates to get on the ballot.

“The far right delegates know they’re a minority,” Weiler said. “The 15% of the population that votes that way can act like they’re more like 45% in the convention.”

Weiler’s example of this effect was in Sen. Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2018. Because the delegates were basically split on Matt Kenney versus Romney for the Senate, the vote went to a primary. The results of the primary were not nearly as close as the votes at the convention.

"It really shows you just how out of touch with the mainstream party some of the delegates are."
Todd Weiler

Discrepancies between delegates and the Public

Numbers above attributed to vote.utah.gov

“The delegates job is to represent the people as a body,” Weiler said, “If they’re not doing that, then something is wrong.”

What are the strengths of the system?

The caucus system when run properly involves a lot of individual interaction between delegates and candidates.

Some Republican Party leaders argue that the caucus convention system helps produce the best possible product on the ballot to compete with Democrats.

Former member of the Utah House of Representatives Derek Brown, who is currently running a campaign for the GOP State Party Chair position, believes the system helps the candidates grow.

“We talk a lot about the caucus process and how people are chosen through the process,” Brown said. “But something that is worth mentioning is how going through this process makes a candidate stronger.”

Brown recalled going through the process himself as a candidate and felt that he was able to become much more in touch with voters as he met with them, called them on the phone, and held cottage meetings in their homes.

With a simple primary process, there would be much less one on one interaction between candidates and voters.

“Another beautiful thing about the caucus convention system is that it allows voters to be more active,” Craig said.

Stoddard is an excellent example of the effect that the caucus system can have on a diligent and proactive delegate.

“When I was precinct chair, I would send out a summary of each debate or ‘meet the candidate’ event to every registered voter in our precinct, ” Stoddard said. “I took it seriously, and expected others to as well.”

Because in the caucus convention system a candidate’s success depends largely on only a handful of specific people (the delegates), candidates will spend a lot of time and energy making individual phone calls, meeting one on one, and listening carefully to concerns. As Brown said, this helps the candidate become more in touch with the voters, but it also helps the voters become more educated and informed on what goes on in their local government.

Senate Bill 54

SB54 passed in 2014 and was a major change to the caucus convention system in Utah.

The bill provides a signature path for candidates to get on the ballot rather than relying solely on delegates.

“The far right has more control of the delegates in the caucus convention delegate system, and so they see senate bill 54 as an attack on their power,” Weiler said.

Far right Republicans have continued to fight against the bill, and until recently the GOP had filed a lawsuit with supreme court, arguing that SB54 is unconstitutional because it interferes with the right that the party has to choose its own nominees. In March 2019 Justices rejected the lawsuit.

“I’m very happy it’s held up against the I’ll-advised battles of the hard-line GOP,” Utah County Democratic Party Chairman Daniel Hicken said. “And I have been very happy to see it embraced by moderate Republicans and Democratic candidates. I hope it will stay as a viable second option, and a check against the efforts of political power-brokers to hand-pick candidates.”

The number of signatures candidates need to collect depends on the district or area that is being represented by the potential nominee. Candidates must gather signatures from at least 2 percent of the political party’s registered voters that reside within the district or area that they are to represent.

For example, if a candidate wants to run in District X and the political party has 50,000 registered voters residing in that district that candidate would need 1,000 signatures to advance to the primary election ballot.

Because there were a lot of questions about this significant change to the process, the state government released an in-depth FAQ document that goes through the process in detail.

People opposed to the bill suggest that this new signature path to the ballot creates an unfair advantage to the well funded, more popular candidates.

Money For Signatures

The above information shows that currently it is indeed difficult to collect enough signatures without some financial assistance.

SB54 made a difference in creating a signature path to the ballot, but according to the Deseret News, only 30 percent of candidates in the 2016 election cycle collected signatures. Of that 30 percent, only 15 percent gathered enough signatures to qualify for a primary ballot.

For some SB54 is seen as enough of a change to fix the flaws in the caucus system, but Mark Stoddard still isn’t convinced.

"The whole idea of the way that the local system works is to run a caucus, and since people don't want the caucus system, then I don't want to be a part of it. There is nothing for me to do." Mark Stoddard
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