I always say if you are going to go, go big! So my inaugural blog is a bit lengthy and it deals with our County Seat TV program. So if you are in for some heavy political thought, read on.
This last weekend we aired a half hour County Seat program on the Count My Vote Initiative. Count My Vote is an initiative trying to get on the ballot here in Utah. We heard from Taylor Morgan, the Executive Director of the Count My Vote Organization in support of, and from Iron County Commissioner David Miller in opposition to…. A half hour discussion does not do justice to this particular issue because it is so complex. he change from the caucus system to direct closed primaries would, for better or worse, be one of the most significant changes to the way we elect people to public office.
Currently it is pretty hard to argue that we are doing it wrong, at least at the state level. We have a very popular governor, a very fiscally aware and prudent legislature and are broadly recognized as one of the best managed, if not the best managed states in the country. I will further say that as I have traveled the state and worked with the county commissioners and councilmen from our 29 counties, I find at least 80 percent of them to be people of high caliber and integrity, regardless of whether I agree with them politically. What that tells me is that overall, we are doing a good job of finding, promoting, vetting, nominating and electing good people to office. There are exceptions, but they seem to be few and far between.
That being said. I want to look at this debate closely.
First, let’s look at what both options will do to the political system as I see it. Count My Vote first:
If passed, Count My Vote (CMV) Caucuses are indeed exclusionary when it comes to people out of town, in the military, or serving LDS missions or working on shifts. Currently there is no provision for people to attend, contribute or participate effectively in that process.
will allow all candidates seeking office for a particular post to be on the ballot for the general population. That could mean anywhere from 6 to 12 candidates per office, per party. It will most likely create a ballot with well over one hundred names in counties along the Wasatch front and could easily push rural county ballots upwards of 40 to fifty names. It offers a great deal of selection to voters, which could be seen as the upside. The down side is that it could offer too much selection and overload voters at the polls or the polling process itself.
CMV will require the candidates to obtain 2% of the registered voters of their particular party throughout the district they are running in. (When I ran for Salt Lake City School board back in the 70s. I only had to obtain 300 signatures. That task alone took 8 volunteers over 2 weeks to obtain. I was only 17 at the time and 4 of the volunteers were school friends 3 of them were teachers who were off for the summer and the other one was my mother. All of them were able to spend all day at it.)
It will cost more. The county clerk will now have to verify names on ballots for all candidates for all offices in both parties. The Davis County Clerk projected that it would require in his county verifying 19,000 signatures at between 30 seconds to 1 min per name. For simplicity lets figure 1 per minute, that boils down to 316 hours in Davis County to verify petitions for county wide races. That does not include state wide races as that will fall to the Lt. Governor. Figure cost of labor with benefits to be at a minimum of $20 per hour and that comes to a tab of $6300 dollars for Davis County alone. So the estimated figure of $800,000 does not sound out of line. However, if you divide that by 2.9 million residents, it only increases costs for each man, woman and child in the state by $0.27. On the flip side of that argument it will be assumed that the candidates will not be able to acquire signatures at the same rate of 1 per minute. It is my guess that it would be more likely (based on my own experience to get at best 15 per hour). Apply that figure to the 19,000 signatures in Davis County and it comes to 1,266 hours that it would take candidates in Davis County to collect. That is 31 weeks of volunteer time to gather the signatures. Most likely they will have to hire for that process. It would be safe to assume that you could hire a canvasser for about $10 per hour so candidate compliance in Davis County would be about $12,600.
Count my vote will shift focus from communicating with delegates (4000 republican and 2700 democratic statewide) to communicating with 2.9 million people state wide. Two way communication between candidates and electorate will cease between state wide candidates. Same will be true along the Wasatch front. In rural counties, it will require candidates to work near full time to make it to all the towns and organize meetings, but it can still be done, most likely it will require “patrons” to fund a media campaign even in rural Utah to buy radio and weekly newspapers to promote candidate. Multiply that by 40 and local rural races will become costly, and will deeply favor incumbents. It will definitely require deeper pockets for anyone considering running. Those without resources will have to look to “investors” who can seed them to get past the primary. There may be a political price for that….. just sayin’.
CMV will up citizen participation from those attending caucuses (136,217) to those voting in primaries about (241,274) in 2012.
Now let’s look at the caucus system and its pros and cons:
Caucuses are indeed exclusionary when it comes to people out of town, in the military, or serving LDS missions or working on shifts. Currently there is no provision for people to attend, contribute or participate effectively in that process.
The caucus system allows us to meet at the neighborhood
level and let issues drive our conversation and select delegates who will communicate those issues to the candidates seeking office. This is a valued concept, however it has become convoluted and this scenario seldom happens anymore.
The caucus system does provide a better opportunity for a candidate with limited resources to present their ideas and become a contending candidate. While more names will be able to be presented to the voting public with a closed primary, they will come from a smaller pool of people able to spend or generate the cash needed to have a shot at winning.
Caucuses lack the discipline of fairness and procedure. I have attended caucuses where a precinct chair can run the caucus and exclude or push certain candidates. It may be due to poor training of precinct chairs, but it may also be intentional. It is this area where young people, women and others who the Count My Vote advocates say don’t have fair representation get sideways with the caucus system. If caucuses are to survive they must address this inequity. This is what is driving people away from that process.
If there is poor party turn out, the caucus system leaves the decision of candidate selection to a very few. However, the candidates are at least reviewed and in most cases vetted between the caucus meeting and the convention.
So with those observations of how the two systems do or will operate. Here are my conclusions:
- There will be a shift in effort and expense with count my vote. In the caucus system the individual citizens are required to make the effort to attend the caucus in their neighborhood to select a candidate. The cost of voter participation lies on the voters themselves to make the effort to be involved in the selection of the candidates. Under count my vote, the cost of participation is shifted to the candidates. This fact alone would remove many modest but capable candidates from running. If would make state wide elections in particular a game of money politics. For candidates would have to either be possessed with lots of money, or have wealthy patrons, particularly during petition collection before the candidacy has even begun. On a personal note, having run for an office that required petition signatures of less than 1% (300) it required several weeks and many volunteers. That was for a school board race in one Salt Lake City district back in the 70s. The cost in a larger county and especially a state wide race would require legions of staff, to meet the 2% goal. That staff, almost assuredly, would have to be paid and that cost would exclude many good candidates from running.
- I don’t think eliminating the caucus and convention will change the voter turnout in the primary election. If people aren’t interested enough to vote now, more candidates will not change that.
- During the show the issue of soldiers and missionaries not being able to participate in the caucus was brought up. The assumption is that their exclusion removes a large percentage of votes from the election process. But if we are only currently seeing 10% turn out in primaries, and the projections I have heard from the county clerks I have talked to is that it will only move the needle of participation by about 5%, and without knowing the exact percentage of Utahns out of state, but let’s say it is 5%, how many of them would be registered or active in their party? I would guess at the same rate as those who are in state at best. Therefore, under the best case scenario, we would only see a real voter jump of less than 1%. Add to that assumption that candidates now have to focus their campaign on where the population centers are because most all the contact with the electorate will now be done by mass media advertising, I doubt the people out of state will receive or hear one word from candidates directly. At very best we are only adding uniformed voters. Which leads to my next point.
- Which is better, having an informed and active group casting a vote in a caucus where candidates have been vetted, or voters casting votes from a list of candidates they know nothing about? I think the better way is expand voter participation is to expend more effort to bring those who are not participating in caucuses to the meetings themselves by promoting the caucuses like we do the candidates and educating people on the process.
- A closed Primary system would take the power to select a candidate out of the hands of a small percentage of engaged citizens who make the effort to know candidates and the issues and transfer it to a small percentage of wealthy people who can back candidates they like with the money that will be needed to collect signatures and buy media coverage to conduct the campaign.
- The real problem is getting people out for caucuses. Along the Wasatch front, we took caucuses out of the neighborhood and moved them to high schools. It meant traveling farther to attend, and put everything on a timed scheduled. It actually discourages people from attending and restricts the business of the caucus by putting everything on a clock.
- The final issue is the timing of closing the candidate filing, and the date of the caucus. For the last 4 cycles, the filing deadline fell on a Friday, and the caucus was held the following Tuesday. That leaves no time for citizens to find out anything about many candidates. It does not help us select committed delegates to send to the convention. (which may be exactly what the “old boy” network wants.) But it corrupts the delegate process and intention.
In a better world, we would keep the caucus. I think it is more reflective of the way our republic works and it provides a better vetting process for candidates as long as people participate and precinct chairs and delegates do their jobs. These positions aren’t titles, or tools to advance a personal agenda, they are jobs that carry a solemn responsibility. So here is the fix by my thinking:
- We would train precinct chairs to better handle their duties fairly.
- We would send delegates to convention and have them committed to vote for their precinct’s pick of candidates on the first ballot.
- We would caucus twice. Once to define the issues of the neighborhood, and once to commit the delegates after the candidates have been vetted by the delegates and alternate delegates. Sounds like more work, but I think people would actually feel more engaged.
- All races would lead to a run off of the top two candidates in a closed primary.
- Finally the county and state parties need to spend as much effort and advertising expense to get people to understand how the system works, and broadly advertise the date of the caucuses to improve turn out
From my perspective the real issue is voter engagement, and I am not just talking about showing up to cast a ballot. I believe that the caucus system when flush with citizens discussing what unites them, is the best way for citizens to guarantee their voice will be heard. We are a representative form of government. It has worked for over 200 years. I think we should select our candidates, the same way we empower our elected officials. However, without broader participation and more people getting involved in the party selection process, changing to a closed primary system only will shift the selection from a hand full of our neighbors, to a handful of wealthy patrons. If you don’t believe it, just look at who the largest donors are to Count My Vote.