The phrase “Vox Populi” hangs on a plaque on the wall directly behind the desk of the Speaker of the Utah House of Representatives. The famous Latin phrase means “the voice of the people.” The idea is that each elected representative will embrace the call to action and that democracy will flourish under its rally cry.
However, for over 150 years, elected officials have fallen short of this. Because of the caucus/convention system, elected officials represent the voices of delegates through the electorate process rather than the voice of the people.
Starting in the 1800s and continuing to the present, with a brief period of open primaries during the 1930s, Utah caucus meetings have elected delegates to represent each district in statewide and nationwide elections. As the years have passed, elected delegates and caucus meeting attendees have moved further to their parties’ margins, thus silencing the majority of moderate voters. Therefore, caucus meeting results do not always accurately represent the constituents in each district.
Around 2010, a group of citizens coalesced to create “Count My Vote”, a citizen’s initiative to place a question on the Utah ballot that would abolish the caucus/convention system and replace it with an open primary. Chaos ensued. In 2016, in an attempt to forge a compromise between the “Count My Vote” initiative and the caucus/convention loyalists, Utah legislators got to work.
Senator Curt Bramble and Representative Dan McCay introduced a solution: Senate Bill 54 (SB54), which provides an alternative route to candidacy. According to SB54, potential candidates have the option of either gathering a specified number of signatures to be automatically placed on their party’s primary ballot or taking the traditional caucus system route by pursuing delegates’ votes at convention. The option of gathering signatures gave candidates who could not win favor with the extremes of their party an alternative pathway. The new signature option generates candidate accountability and constituent engagement and furthers the political process.
The response to SB54 has been divided. Caucus system loyalists consider signature gathering candidates as infidels trying to force themselves onto primary ballots. These traditionalists created the “Keep My Voice” movement, which maintains the caucus/convention path as the only route for candidates. They have anchored themselves to the caucus/convention system and refuse to let up.
After repeated court decisions affirming the legality of SB54, all parties involved have shifted their focus toward preparing candidates through whichever path seems the most viable. Those in the “Count My Vote” camp understand the polarizing nature of the caucus system and the need for a change. They see SB54 as an attempt to create an alternative, parallel route to the primary ballot without completely annihilating the convention system. Proponents see the caucus system as a threat to moderate voters, and they see gathering signatures as a way to increase voter engagement and participation.
I would argue that the caucus system actually hinders political involvement and silences the majority of voters within both parties, namely moderates. In the state of Utah in the past two years, there have been numerous elections where a candidate did not receive the required percentage, 60 percent in most races, at the party convention to secure their place primary ballot, but that candidate had also collected signatures. Those candidates ended up winning in the popular vote primaries. Two prominent examples? The John Curtis 2017 congressional campaign and the current Mitt Romney senatorial campaign. Neither of these candidates won at convention. Mitt Romney was defeated by Mike Kennedy at the state convention this spring with a total of 49 percent. But when the primary rolled around this summer, Romney won with nearly 76 percent.
Perhaps the main positive impact of gathering signatures is the increase in constituent accountability and voter engagement. Many districts in Utah are considered “safe districts,” which means they almost always vote for a certain party due to redistricting strategies and historical precedent. Because of this, most races are won at convention and primaries are becoming less and less frequent. In turn, elected officials are rarely being challenged and they lose their moxie for typical campaign actions that encourage engagement. They aren’t out walking neighborhoods, having town hall meetings, and sending out mailers when they know they have no candidate opposing them. This leads to a less informed and involved constituency and a less accountable electorate. However, with a new route to candidacy, elected officials will feel less comfortable in their roles, therefore proactively seeking feedback from constituents and devoting more time and energy to representing those who they are meant to serve.
In order to carry out the intent of “Vox Populi”, elected officials must represent the people. In order to represent the people, they must be elected by the people. The alternate route to candidacy frees our elected officials from the tyranny of the delegates and allows them to truly represent. They become more than just the voice of the delegates. They refocus on the vision and the intent of our state and become the voice of the people.
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