If you’ve been following the news lately, you will know that Count My Vote is attempting to be a citizens initiative to change Utah’s caucus system to a primary system. At a minimum, it’s gotten Utahns talking about how we select our candidates for public office which is good. I’m not convinced Count My Vote’s solution solves the problem they claim to want to solve. Will switching from the current caucus system improve voter engagement and turnout? That depends on whether it addresses the reasons people don’t vote.
Do we know why Utah has low voter turnout in primary and general elections? Why don’t eligible voters actually get out and vote?
In the 2008 Census Bureau voting survey, topping the list of reasons for not voting is a lack of interest (13%) or a dislike of the candidates or issues (13%). More than a quarter of registered nonvoters in 2008 didn’t vote because they weren’t interested or didn’t like their choices.
Many reported illness or disability (15%), especially among older registered nonvoters. Others were too busy, or had conflicting schedules (17%). That’s about a third of the registered nonvoters.
Of the remainder, many had some logistical problem with the process: 6% had problems with their voter registration, 3% did not have convenient polling places, and another 3% had some sort of transportation problem. And 0.2% reported that bad weather conditions kept them from the polls on election day.
What does this tell us about why not all of those who are registered actually cast a ballot in the 2008 presidential election? According to the Census Bureau data, 131 million people participated in that election, of 146 million registered voters, and of 206 million citizens who are of voting age. Those who are registered and otherwise eligible to vote, but who don’t, are tuned out or turned off; they are sick or too busy; or they have something procedural that prevents them from voting.
I think it’s reasonable to assume Utahns reasons for not voting are similar to the reasons other American don’t vote. Will switching from caucuses to primaries address the reasons people don’t vote?
The top two reasons given for not voting was disinterest and/or dislike of their options. In one of his books, James Carville talked about the pyramid of rational ignorance. The idea is that we only have so much time and energy and attention so we give our time, energy and attention to the things we deem most important and have minimal or functional knowledge about other things and take cues from media and those around us. Outside of a small group of people, most of us aren’t willing to spend time and energy learning about the issues. The complaint that both parties are the same and the media’s woeful tendency toward false equivalency of the parties comes from and reinforces this pyramid of rational ignorance. If a policy or topic is complex or arcane, we’re even less likely to know anything worthwhile about it.
It’s practically a cliché that American voters have short attention spans and possibly shorter memories. Most of us are terrible at knowing what a party or candidate stands for and which policies they’ll support. I’ve talked with people who said they voted for a Republican because they favored health care reform which is the exact opposite of what is going on in the real world. Polls consistently show American believe the deficit has increased under the Obama administration when in fact it has declined. The Republican party has spent all of its time since 2008 spreading misinformation and getting away with it because of the “rational ignorance” of many voters.
So, if voters aren’t voting because they don’t care, the obvious question to ask is “In what ways will having primaries engage voters and make them care?” Bear in mind lots of voters literally don’t even show up to vote in primary elections. What happens, as it happened in 2008, was that a competitive primary election garnered lots of attention, voters got interested. People paid attention to Clinton versus Obama. I’m not sure the same thing happened for the GOP in 2012.
The “dislike their choices” problem may or may not be resolved by a primary system. Is this complaint a legitimacy complaint? In 2012, it seemed Romney’s biggest problem was the sense that the Republican establishment supported him but Republican voters didn’t so he had to fend off a seemingly endless parade of challengers. Ultimately, Republicans backed his candidacy simply because he outlasted all his challengers and no single challenger was able to unite opposition to him. Did Newt voters stay home on election day 2012 because they didn’t like Romney or Obama? Did some Hillary voters stay home on election day 2008 since they didn’t like Obama or McCain? I’m not convinced a primary versus a caucus answers these questions.
Count My Vote argues that Utah’s system is unusually restrictive (from their website):
- Utah is one of only a few states that still use a convention.
- Of the states that still use a convention, Utah has the highest barrier for candidates – 40% of party delegates’ votes (Colorado – 30%, Connecticut – 15%, New Mexico 20%, North Dakota – endorsement only).
- Utah is the only state in which a political party is allowed to preclude a primary election for statewide or Congressional offices.
They also argue that our caucus system produces delegates who do not accurately represent the state’s political views:
- Party delegates and activists have different priorities than voters and do not represent the views of average Utahns.
- Utah’s system gives the most power and influence to those with the most extreme views.
If you miss your local caucus (for whatever reason), you are basically cut out of the candidate selection process. Utah’s caucus/convention system, in practice, empowers the most passionate activists and disempowers the broader community of voters. A relatively small number of delegates are granted enormous influence in the system. Will changing our system result in better candidates?
What are the arguments against the proposed reform? According to Protect Our Neighborhood Elections:
Utah’s Neighborhood Election System (also known as the Caucus/Convention system) allows for more voter participation, not less. This system has been a part of Utah in one form or another since just after Utah became a state. With this system, Utahns are able to vote at their Neighborhood Election, then at their party convention, then in the primary election, and finally in the general election. While voter turnout in the primary and general elections has decreased, the turnout in Neighborhood Elections has greatly increased over the past several years.
In an article in the Salt Lake Tribune published Sep 23, 2103, state GOP leaders offered their reasons for opposing Count My Vote:
[GOP Chair James] Evans counters that, under Count My Vote’s proposal, a dozen people could be on a primary ballot, allowing a winner to advance with a small percentage of the vote. The parties would no longer have any say in who their nominees are and a Democrat could be chosen as the Republican nominee.
Special interests and corporations would have a greater say, Evans said, and the primaries would be subject to mischief from labor unions and others.
He said he can make a case that Count My Vote is a bad idea, but to win he needs his own party to show that it is serious about changing the system to encourage participation.
Count My Vote organizers have to gather signatures from 102,000 registered voters spread across 26 of 29 state senate districts to put the measure on the 2014 ballot. If it passes, the new primary system would take effect in the 2016 elections.
GOP Vice Chairman Willie Billings said if Count My Vote passes candidates will have no incentive to visit rural Utah and those counties will become “fly-over” country.
The GOP arguments against it are ingenuous.
Special interests are already influential, I’m not clear how the caucus system has reduced their influence. The caucus system is hardly immune to mischief. Caucuses are public events, time and location announced in advance. A small, well-organized group of persons could easily manipulate caucuses to their advantage. The Utah Eagle Forum has gained much of its influence by being a small, well-organized group that figured out how to game the system. Lots of Utah county legislators have learned to their chagrin you cross Gayle Ruzicka and you lose at the next caucus meeting. The fear about rural Utah becoming “fly-over” counties strikes me as a cheap talking point rather than an actual argument. More than 1 in 3 Utahns lives in Salt Lake County; 80% of us live on the greater metropolitan area (basically Brigham City to Provo). Urban concerns affect 80% of Utahns. Exactly how much time and energy should we spend preserving the political influence of the 20% of Utahns who live outside the urban center?
The Utah GOP has taken some steps to respond to Count My Vote’s criticisms – see this October 26 Tribune article for some of the details. The State Democratic Party website currently boasts a landing page that encourages us to improve voter turnout and offers some specifics about how to do so but haven’t taken steps to dismantle the caucus system.
Is Utah’s low voter turnout a function of the caucus system or of single party dominance? I would guess lots of potential voters in Utah assume the Republican will always win and so they don’t bother to vote. The people who don’t know there is a caucus meeting to attend to select delegates probably wouldn’t know there is a primary election. Defenders of the caucus system rightly point out it reduces barriers to entry for upstart or insurgent candidates. Count My Vote is correct when they point out that it can seem as if established and popular pols simply vanish after conventions (Olene Walker in 2004 is a good example of a popular relatively moderate pol who could have handily won re-election being eliminated by convention delegates).
One last final, not necessarily related observation. If you follow the money, this discussion gets very interesting.
Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, has appeared to oppose Count My Vote. They are run by the Utah First PIC (their financial disclosure is here). Compare that to the Count My Vote sponsoring PIC (calling itself the Alliance for Good Government) financial disclosure. The list of financial supporters for Count My Vote is extremely short; check out their financial reporting. You’ll see 21 donors. One donor, Gail Miller, has given $100,000. Twelve donors have given $25,000 apiece. So thirteen donors raised $400,000. The other 8 donors contributed a combined $43,200. Such numbers are hardly representative of the people of Utah. In stark contrast, other than $5000 from the Iron County Republican party, Utah First has lots of small donors and has raised less than $7000. Mike Leavitt, former governor, is at last partly behind Count My Vote, I have a hard time believing he and his supporters feel disenfranchised by the current system. It’s certainly enough to give me pause and wonder “What are they after?”
If we’re unsatisfied with the status quo, then we need to take a look at it and figure out some reforms. If the status quo is working for us, then we don’t change it. The whole Count My Vote debate hinges on those two statements. If you like the outcomes in Utah politics, why would you change things? If you dislike them, why wouldn’t you change things? And it’s fair to ask why a small group of rich people want to change things.