Should Utah’s caucus/convention system be retained, or scrapped?
Utah is one of the few remaining states that still use the caucus/convention system for political parties to winnow their candidates down to one per public office. The system used to be almost universal, but has been abandoned in favor of the direct primary system in recent decades by most states for reasons explained below.
As a quick review, our caucus/convention system works like this: Every even-numbered year, voters in the several precincts (a voting precinct being a geographical division of about a thousand voters, give or take a few hundred) meet in what is called a precinct caucus, for the party of their choice, to elect delegates to represent them at the party’s nominating conventions later in the year. In the case of the Republican Party in Utah County, each precinct elects one or more delegates to the county Republican convention and chooses one or more nominees who are ratified by the delegates at the county convention to be delegates to the state Republican convention. Each precinct is guaranteed at least two county delegates and one state delegate. The number of delegates allocated to each precinct varies, depending on the aggregate number of votes cast in that precinct in the last presidential election for the offices of governor, attorney general, state auditor, and state treasurer. Precincts that have thereby shown greater Republican “strength” are rewarded with a greater number of delegates. The number of county delegates allocated to a precinct is generally larger than the number of state delegates. Typical numbers are two to three state and four to six county delegates per precinct.
At the county and state nominating conventions, the delegates vote for their preferred candidates in races for elected public office where more than one Republican candidate has filed, and nominate by acclamation those candidates who are unopposed within the party. In a contested election, a candidate who receives 60% of the delegates’ votes becomes the party’s nominee and is thereby able to avoid a primary election. (Until about 10 years ago, it required a 70% vote of the delegates for a candidate to receive the party’s nomination and bypass a primary.) If no candidate in a contested race receives 60%, the two top vote-getters then face each other in the primary election and the one receiving a majority of the votes of registered Republicans in the general public becomes the party’s nominee for the general election. Because the delegates are the ones who determine who the party’s candidates will be in the primary election (if three or more Republicans have filed for the same office) and even, if 60% of them vote for one candidate, who the party’s candidates will be in the general election, they have a tremendous amount of power. They serve as gatekeepers to make sure that only certain types of candidates are presented to the public, by the party, to vote on.
In a direct primary system, all of the candidates who filed under a particular party show up on the ballot in the primary election, and the one from each party who gets the most votes from the voters in his or her party becomes that party’s nominee in the general election. The primary election may be either open or closed. If open, voters may vote for candidates from any party—even from parties that they are not registered members of. In a closed primary, only members of a given party or, in some cases, unaffiliated voters may vote for candidates from that party. Since open primaries encourage crossover voting to sabotage a rival party’s nominees, the Republican party in Utah holds closed primaries, in which only registered Republican voters and voters who have declared no party affiliation may vote for Republican candidates. The Democrat party, on the other hand, is so hard up for votes (and candidates) in this state that they keep their primary elections open. In Utah County it is so rare that the Democrats have more than one candidate per office (they often don’t even have one candidate for every office) that it really doesn’t matter whether their primary is open or closed.
The caucus/convention system has two advantages over the direct primary system. One is that it reduces the cost—to candidates and society as a whole—of elections. It is much easier and less expensive for a candidate to contact and try to persuade the roughly 1,100 county delegates or 3,500 state delegates than it is to do the same with, say, 15,000 voters in a state house district, 45,000 voters in a state senate district, 200,000 voters in a race for a county commission seat, or a million voters in a race for governor. Even with the cost of putting on a convention factored in, surely less money is spent, on the whole, in the caucus/convention system than in the direct primary system. (One recent interesting counterbalancing trend, however, is that some few savvy candidates are catching on to the fact that it can be easier to secure the party’s nomination at convention than in a primary and are spending as much as $30,000—an amount that is more typically spent on an entire campaign from filing through the general election—prior to convention in order to get the delegates’ votes.)
The other big advantage of the caucus/convention system is that it tends to put the selection of a party’s nominees into the hands of people who are more knowledgeable than the general electorate. With the exception of the perturbations caused by the UEA’s perennial efforts to pack the caucuses with members and supporters of their labor union, Republican delegates tend to be more conservative than Republican voters as a whole and even more conservative than the general electorate. The result is that the caucus/convention system tends to preserve the ideological purity of the party better than a direct primary system. But perhaps even more important than orthodoxy is the fact that delegates either are people who are already far more informed and engaged in politics than the average voter or quickly become so as a result of their service as delegates. So they know, better than most voters, who’s who and what’s what. They can more accurately make judgment calls as to whether a particular candidate has integrity and leadership skills and whether the candidate is likely to be effective in advancing the conservative agenda, because they often already know these individuals from years back; or, if they don’t already know them, they quickly get an opportunity to become better acquainted with the candidates than most voters are usually able to. There is tremendous merit to the humble institution of cottage meetings, for example, in which candidates meet with delegates in intimate settings to state their positions and get input and feedback.
The democratic urge runs broad and deep in the American psyche. Even the most ignorant man deems himself to be as competent as the next guy to determine who is fit to serve in public office. But our Founding Fathers, with their reading of history, didn’t see it that way. In the Constitutional Convention, the question wasn’t whether they would forge a republic or a democracy. They were committed to some form of republican government. They knew that democracies have always shown themselves to be unstable institutions that collapse into tyranny. Benjamin Franklin summed up their sentiments well when he answered a curious woman who inquired, as he emerged from the convention, what type of government they had forged, by saying, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The Founding Fathers were leery of extending the franchise to everyone, because history told them that the poor masses, if given the vote, invariably use it to plunder the property of the wealthy minority. Contrary to our contemporary sentiments, they saw benefit to society in maintaining a degree of aristocratic control of government as a counterpoise to the mob mentality of the masses. So they originally set up the Constitution so that U.S. senators were elected not by the people directly, but by the legislators of the state that they represented. (That has since been changed by the 17th Amendment, so that now senators are elected directly by the people, just as members of the House of Representatives are.) They modeled the Senate somewhat after the House of Lords in England, and the House of Representatives after the House of Commons. Interestingly enough, Alexis de Tocqueville, the young French aristocrat who visited the United States in 1830 eager to learn what made this new republic tick and who wrote his observations in his most excellent Democracy in America, noted in chapter 13 that the members of the United States House of Representatives at the time were, almost to a man, a vulgar, unrefined, often uneducated lot, whereas the Senators were all very distinguished individuals. He attributed the difference to the differing modes of election to the two legislative bodies. (This was long before the 17th Amendment.) One can hardly say that such a difference persists to this day. About the only difference is that the Senators are more conceited than their House counterparts. For similar reasons, the Founding Fathers established the Electoral College for the selection of President. The idea was to establish a select body of electors that kept the election of so important and powerful an office as the presidency a step or two removed from the vote of the masses. In the meantime we have subverted the purpose of the Electoral College to the point that it seems archaic.
Even though the Founding Fathers did not establish the caucus/convention system (a system that first developed in Pennsylvania in the 1820s and quickly spread to most states), the system preserves the spirit of multiple layers of representatives inherent in the Constitution’s guarantee of a republican (that’s with a small “r”) form of government for every state of the Union. (See Article IV, Section 4.) Think about it a moment: Is society better served by letting the masses, no matter how ignorant, dictate policy; or by putting control into the hands of people who are more knowledgeable? The answer, it turns out, is not all that cut and dried, since knowledgeable people in control don’t always serve the best interests of society but pursue, rather, their own selfish interests to the detriment of society as a whole; we call that oligarchy. But, all things being equal, it is better to have informed people in control than ignorant ones. For that reason, if for no other, the caucus/convention system is worth preserving.
Over the years, I have heard reasonable, well-meaning individuals advocate scrapping the caucus/convention system in Utah and going to direct primaries like most other states—usually when they are frustrated with the results the current system is producing. But the direct primary system has some serious disadvantages compared to the caucus/convention system. One is the cost of campaigns. For a candidate to have any realistic chance to win, he or she must either be independently wealthy and willing to part with a lot of that wealth in pursuit of the office, or must be plugged into a well-oiled political machine that will come up with the money to pay for all the advertising. Under the direct primary system, the mass media gain greater influence over the outcome of elections. (In case you hadn’t noticed, the mass media are not particularly friendly to conservative candidates.) And because of the heavy reliance on mass media under the direct primary system, the campaigning is inexorably driven to the lowest common denominator of sound bites, innuendo, disinformation, and scare tactics. Campaigns become not unlike what we are already distressingly familiar with in nonpartisan balloting on initiatives and propositions: The special interests that stand to make a lot of money if the measure passes pour lots of money into propaganda touting the proposal, while the lack of money and coordination among the far greater number of people who stand to lose small amounts individually (but large amounts in aggregate) gives the appearance of lack of opposition, so the measure passes handily. The candidates who spend the most money win; competent, decent ideologues without the cash need not apply. And, of course, if ideology is important to you, direct primaries aren’t very appealing, because primary voters are generally less ideologically oriented than delegates are.
There is, however, one very real and pervasive problem with the caucus/convention system, and that is its susceptibility to being overtaken by a small minority—whether that be an extreme ideological faction, an overambitious party boss, a special interest group, or a good ol’ boy network—and thus its tendency to produce entrenched political machines. The peril is especially acute where one party enjoys a natural decisive dominance over the other. Where there are two viable parties competing for voters, they tend to keep each other in check and to keep each other honest. But when one party is dominant, party leaders have tendency to become king-makers who determine who gets elected to public office. It doesn’t take long for office-seekers to figure out that if they want that coveted office, they’ve got to cut deals with the party bosses. An incestuous relationship develops between the dominant party and government that enriches and empowers party leaders and public officials at the expense of an almost helpless public. Corruption and legalized plunder become rampant. This is the very reason why the caucus/convention system has been scrapped and replaced by direct primaries in so many states.
Take a look at the political landscape in Utah. Is one party overwhelmingly dominant? Answer that question, and you will realize the great danger we face from our caucus/convention system. That peril is even more grave as the result of a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case that determined that political parties are private organizations, not unlike social clubs, whose internal rules are immune from government meddling. Over the course of the decades prior to that ruling, states had enacted statutes governing the internal affairs of political parties under the theory that there was a direct public interest in maintaining integrity in the internal workings of the parties. These laws were designed to curb the abuses that inevitably popped up under the caucus/convention system. But with the Supreme Court ruling, those laws were null and void, and political parties were given carte blanche to do as they please. Unscrupulous party leaders quickly recognized (whether consciously or intuitively) the bonanza thus afforded and rushed to take advantage of their enhanced powers and ability to set up political machines.
What are the telltale signs that your political party is becoming—or already is—a political machine? Some of the more readily recognizable ones are the following:
- The same relatively small clique of people holds the top party offices year after year.
- Party office regularly becomes a springboard to public office.
- The number of appointed delegates and officers keeps increasing.
- Debate in conventions is severely curtailed.
- Party leaders become secretive and partial in dispensing information to candidates, delegates, and the public.
- Party officers show favoritism—usually toward incumbents over challengers from within the party.
- Incidents of cheating and vote fraud proliferate.
- The party loses touch with the public.
- Purges start happening within the party.
- Party leaders increasingly resort to smear tactics in combating people who challenge them.
- Party leaders freely make, break, change, and reinterpret party rules according to their whim instead of proper protocol.
- Corruption abounds.
Do you recognize any of these taking place within the Utah Republican Party or the Utah County Republican Party? If so, you have reason for alarm—and to take action to reverse the trend. As a guardian of our liberty, the caucus/convention system should be preserved, but it requires eternal vigilance on our part to make sure that that very system does not become perverted into an instrument of our enslavement. Get involved now to rectify any abuses you see cropping up in our party.
Here in Utah County we have a long, fine tradition of a Republican Party that is decent and honest, that stands for correct principles. Let’s make sure it remains that way.