Signatures and Caucuses: How “Count My Vote” is Slowly Changing Utah

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” – Winston Churchill, 1947

Ever since Plato’s Republic, civilized nations have struggled with one crucial question: just how much power can be entrusted to the people, the demos in democracy? In the United States, there is a delicate balance between power given to the people and power given to their representatives. This balance has shifted over time (for example, the 17th Amendment requires Senators to be elected by popular vote, rather than by state legislature) and continues to be debated today.

One area where this debate is particularly fierce right now is the role of political parties in elections. Parties have a great deal of power here because of their ability to control who can get onto a ballot in the first place. This “gatekeeping” has been the subject of much criticism over the years– many people feel that parties only nominate candidates that are relatively far-left or far-right on the political spectrum, leaving citizens in the center with nobody to vote for. As such, various reforms have been attempted to encourage the nomination of candidates who are closer to the political middle, while still allowing parties to make sure they are sponsoring candidates who share their values. The great state of Utah is in the process of implementing one of these reforms right now in the form of the “Count My Vote” initiative.

A bit of background information: Utah is an overwhelmingly conservative state. It is not at all cynical to point out that for the vast majority of statewide races, the real election is the Republican primary. This is not necessarily a bad thing– in a democracy, we would expect a heavily conservative constituency to consistently elect conservative representatives. However, it does mean that the primary system should be carefully monitored, since it wields disproportionate power over elections.

Utah is one of only a few states that still use a caucus/convention system to make nominations. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the caucus system picks nominees based on the vote of party delegates, unless no candidate can get 60% of delegates’ votes, in which case a normal primary is held (all registered party members can vote in a primary, not just delegates). This means that in many cases, it is the delegates, not voters, who are electing candidates to offices. History has shown that party delegates tend to be relatively extreme, even compared to rank-and-file members of their own party. Thus, there has long been a desire to provide some other pathway for candidates to get their name onto a primary ballot.

A potential solution has been found, in the form of Count My Vote. It represents a compromise that makes sure voters get a voice in the nomination process, while still allowing parties a significant role. Under the initiative, prospective candidates may choose to gather signatures from registered party members who would support them in a run for office (the number of signatures required varies from 1000 to 30000, depending on the office). Any candidate who does this within the allotted time (a period of about 3.5 months, which is generally plenty of time but does require that the candidate be well-organized) is automatically added to the primary ballot. If candidates prefer not to use this signature route, they may still go through the old caucus and convention system, which remains essentially unchanged. Therefore, the names appearing on each parties primary ballot are A) the winner or winners from convention, and B) anyone who turned in sufficient authentic signatures. Candidates may use either or both of these routes at their discretion.

Count My Vote was signed into law back in March 2014, but has been controversial enough that usage of the signature route is just now becoming more mainstream. The Utah Republican Party was outraged by the original passage of the bill and immediately sued to have it blocked by the courts, protesting that it may force them to fund general election candidates who do not represent their party’s values (though cynics have argued that the outrage is more over the fact that they have lost the bottleneck that gave them substantial control over the election process). Many Republican candidates for office have feared that filing signatures will have them branded as heretics, and risk the wrath of the still-powerful party coming down upon them. As such, the 2016 Utah election cycle featured relatively few races whose outcomes were altered by the existence of the signature route.

But time is moving on and it appears that the political winds may have begun to shift. Count My Vote made its first major impact in August 2017 when then-Provo Mayor John Curtis came in a dismal 5th place at the Republican convention for the 3rd Congressional District special election, but got onto a primary ballot anyway via signatures and went on to win both the primary and the election. The State Republican Party continues to fight the measure in court, but all rulings handed down so far have come back against them and the party has gone deeply into debt in the process. As such, candidates are showing a much greater willingness to gather signatures, giving them a fallback plan if they lose at convention. Dozens of candidates for a myriad of offices have filed intent to gather signature, and the number may well be in the hundreds by the time the deadline to file intent arrives on March 15. So if you’re a Utahn trying to be a little more civically active, consider offering your signature to a candidate you support. Outside of actually voting, this is one of the most simple-yet-effective ways to make your voice heard. The balance of power has shifted ever so slightly back toward the people, and each of us has a responsibility to use that power responsibly. Only through the active participation in government by everyday people, the demos in democracy, will we ensure that our government is truly as representative as it was intended to be.

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