Two-thirds of Utahns either don't know about the state's unique political caucus/convention system or know something about how it works, but don't participate in it, a new Dan Jones & Associates poll conducted for a legislative seminar shows.
Only a third of the registered voters polled said they know about the caucus/convention system and participate in it – an overall rather dismal reflection of citizen participation in the most grass roots process of electing Utah officeholders.
Even those who run the March neighborhood political party caucuses say not enough Utahns are showing up. Indeed, the state Republican Party is spending $100,000 this year trying to get more GOP members to their caucuses.
The new survey is part of the annual Legislative Summit, a seminar for politically active professionals and public policy wonks that is sponsored by the Exoro public policy consulting group and UtahPolicy Daily.
Jones interviewed 516 registered voters in early January, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.
The poll is exhaustive, more than 50 questions on political and state government issues, and UPD will publish news analysis of the results over the next few weeks.
Last month a newly-formed group – Count My Vote Coalition – announced that it will not run a citizen initiative petition in 2012 seeking to provide an alternative route for a candidate to get on a political party's primary ballot.
Leaders of the group, which include former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, Hinckley Institute of Politics executive director Kirk Jowers and Exoro partner and UPD publisher LaVarr Webb, said they didn't have enough time before the April 15 petition filing deadline to gather the estimated 100,000 voter signatures required.
In addition, the group said the state Legislature should have time to consider passing a candidate signature petition route to a primary ballot before voters at large are asked to weigh in on the issue.
But if remarks made by Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, are a reflection of GOP legislators' desires on the subject, there's little chance of that.
Asked during a panel discussion on upcoming legislative issues whether he would support such a change in the caucus/convention system, Jenkins said: "No, we are not going to do that. And I will do all I can to see that we don't. We are the best managed state in the nation." And the route that got this fine group of legislators elected shouldn't be messed with, he added.
The Count My Vote group says they would not change the current system, but add an alternative route to a primary ballot, as other states with a caucus/convention system do now.
In fact, the group says that Utah is the only state out of 50 that has no direct route to a primary. Most have all candidates just go on a primary ballot, no convention candidate selection process at all. Others have some kind of convention candidate nominating system, but provide another route to the party primary ballot.
Rich McKeown, a member of the coalition, said it is his hope that Utah lawmakers will address the problem in some fashion in the 2012 session, which starts Monday, or in 2013.
But if they don't, then the chances are high that the coalition will attempt a citizen initiative for the 2014 general election ballot.
More than 100 people attended the summit. And 52 percent of them said the current caucus/convention system should just be junked all together. However, that can't be done via state law, since the Utah Supreme Court has said that political parties can control their own nominating process.
The high court has also said that states can decide who is put on a primary ballot.
Of those registered voters who told Jones they had some knowledge of the current caucus/convention system, 58 percent "somewhat" or "strongly" favor changing state law to provide for an alternative route to a party's primary ballot.
Thirty-five percent opposed the idea, 3 percent mentioned some other way to solve the concern, while 5 percent didn't know.
One alternative is being considered would allow a candidate to bypass the caucus/convention system by gathering a specified number of signatures to get on the ballot. A candidate could then choose the caucus/convention system or the signature method? Do you favor or oppose adding a signature method to get on the ballot?
It's generally argued that both Republican and Democratic legislators will oppose any changes to the caucus/convention system that could marginalize their own party delegates – since it was those delegates that voted them their party's nominee in the first place.
In other words, you don't bite the hand that feeds you.
In the Friday summit, House Rules Chairman Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, said he would be willing to look into the matter, but not this upcoming session.
That's smart for him – Harper has already said that he'll run for the state Senate in 2012, and so in April he'll be facing the Salt Lake County Convention delegates for his new Senate district.
Both Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, and House Minority Assistant Whip Brian King, D-Salt Lake, said Democratic legislators may be willing to consider the direct route signature change, but neither pledged to support it.
Democrats don't have many convention or primary fights. Democratic candidates figure they are already behind their GOP counterparts in most races in the state, and making minority party candidates fight it out in convention and in a primary only wastes time and money and fractures party loyalists.
Most Democratic candidates win nomination in a county or state convention by getting more than 60 percent of the delegate vote.
Republicans can also win nomination with 60 percent of the convention delegate vote. But historically Republicans have more primary elections.
However, Republicans conduct closed primaries – you have to be a registered Republican to vote in a GOP primary.
And that puts off a lot of Utah political independents – who feel they are just left out of the whole process if a GOP candidate wins in the final election.
The majority GOP view – "we like the system we have since we hold most of the offices" – and the minority Democrats' and independents' views – "we feel left out of Utah political life" – were reflected in the new Jones poll.
For example, 42 percent of the GOP voters told Jones that they understand and participate in the caucus/convention system. (This is clearly a higher percent of registered Republicans than actually show up at the March caucus meetings, so some of the respondents may be counting caucuses they attended years ago.)
Only 29 percent of Democrats said they both understand the caucus/convention system and attend caucuses.
Only 24 percent of political independents said they understand and participate in the system.
GOP voters are split over whether they want the alternative route to a primary or not – 47 percent favor the change, 47 percent oppose the change, Jones found.
Sixty-three percent of Democrats favor the change.
And a whopping 75 percent of independents favor a change to a direct route to a party primary.
One of the complaints about the caucus/convention system is that by its very nature – with party loyalists attending the neighborhood caucus meetings and electing delegates that are even stronger party members – is that the eventual delegates are more to the right for Republicans, more to the left for Democrats, and so the resulting candidates for both parties are on the extreme ends of the political spectrum.
That's not good for the general populace, who end up with (in the case of heavily-Republican Utah) officeholders that don't reflect the more moderate middle, critics say.
Jones asked the respondents – both Republicans, Democrats and independents – what they think about the current GOP state delegates (who kicked former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett from office in 2010).
Forty-three percent said they believe with the statement that the GOP delegates are civic-minded citizens who represent the majority of Utah Republicans well.
Twenty-eight percent said the delegates are too right wing; 12 percent said the delegates are too moderate or liberal; 6 percent offered some other answer; while 12 percent didn't have an opinion.
Not surprisingly, GOP voters feel that the Republican delegates are just fine – 65 percent saying the delegates are good civic-mined folks who represent them well.
But here's an interesting statistic: 10 percent of "strong Republicans" believe that the current GOP delegates are too moderate or liberal. Just goes to show you can't please all the folks all the time.