Caucuses, primaries, turnout and Count My Vote

Vote_12345Personally, I remain ambivalent toward the status quo vs. Count My Vote.

Call me a cynic; you’d be right.  On one hand I am realistic that any nominating system can be gamed and the choice is really between one form of gaming and another.

On the other hand, I am intrigued by the big kick in the pants Count My Vote would be for both parties, and the absolute deserved kick in the pants both major parties have solidly earned for a plethora of reasons.  That said, the discussion of nominating processes as they relate to turnout and representation is an important one.

You will hear a lot from all sides on what they are for and against and why, but I say in the interest of understanding both sides, let’s simplify regarding the representation portion of the debate.  In fact, let’s over simplify.

  • Count My Vote aims to increase the number of people deciding the parties’ nominees.  They hope to make it harder for, say, candidate Mike Lee to become Senator Mike Lee the way he did.   Full stop.
  • Caucus Defenders defend the current system as a process anyone interested can be a part o, and one that more carefully vets candidates intra-party than, say, a TV ad war in an open primary might.  Full stop.

Count My Vote won’t tell you how their initiative will or will not effect participation as a % of registered voters, because no one knows.  They just know their initiative will result in more voters than a few thousand delegates deciding the GOP nominees.

Caucus Defenders won’t remind you of the limit number of delegates statewide, or times when delegates and the average Republican voter have been on very different pages (hint: 2010… though to be fair, less so in 2012).

So in 2010, Mike Lee’s campaign effectively ‘hijacked’ the GOP nomination process (for lack of a better word), Count My Vote wants to make that harder to do in the future, and Caucus Defenders want to pretend it didn’t happen that way, or wouldn’t happen often.

But neither side can be that honest and win in the court of public opinion and signature gathering, so you hear what you’re hearing instead.

Some things you shouldn’t believe when you hear them coming out of mouths:

  • Primaries increase turnout, and produce moderate candidates (More on this below).
  • Delegates are more informed (Ask anyone who’s worked on a delegate campaign and speaks honestly).
  • “This is an elitist power grab.”  All the most influential players here are elites, on either side.  In fact, current Republican or Democratic party leadership… just zip it.  You’re embarrassing yourselves.

So, all of the political jockeying cleared up, out of the way and hopefully heretofore ignored, some facts:

Primaries and Turnout.

There is a lot of political science on what increases turnout.  Not a lot of it supports the idea that open primaries turnout as a % of registered voters (for fairness, see again what I’ve written above on what I think Count My Vote really means by ‘increased participation’).  California switched to a primary nomination system even more “opened up” than what Count My Vote is proposing, and saw decreased turnout in the very next cycle.

There is evidence that competitive races (via better redistricting processes, and — cough cough Utah Democrats — two party showdowns), same day registration, relaxing voter ID laws, and default mail-in balloting may increase turnout, but little to show just opening up the primaries will positively have an effect, unless you want to go much further than what Count My Vote is proposing (“top two,” runoffs, ect.).  Utah Data Points’ Adam Brown argues that low turnout could be a result of more extreme candidates after the tightening of caucus rules in the 90s, single party dominance, or even a larger number of young, distracted voters.

Primaries and Moderate Candidates.

Arguably one of the biggest myths of open primaries is that they, by nature, produce more moderate candidates.  John Sides at The Monkey Cage has a handy post linking to most of the current research on this notion.  A short summary of it:

  1. Voters are never as independent — issue by issue — as they claim to be,
  2. Party leaders and donors still have undue influence over candidates who run.  Open primary or closed, neither guarantee more moderate candidates.

Problems with the Caucus.

As I’ve said, the idea that delegates are more informed is not one to take seriously.

More opinionated, sure.

More active in political circles before or because of delegacy (I’m making that a word), sure.

More informed or educated than the average voter.  No.

Don’t believe me, ask around about a variety of issues at a convention, you’ll hear just as many chain email bred ‘knowledge’ and talk radio parroting as you’ll hear at the office water cooler or local retirees’ favorite daytime lunch spot.

As I pointed out above, in 2010 delegate responses to a Utah Foundation survey showed them to be far outside of the mainstream of Utah’s views on major issues.  By 2012 things were a bit more aligned again.

An acceptable fluke, or a dangerous structural flaw in the caucus system, considering that many elections — not just nominations — will be decided in the GOP convention?

One additional, if philosophical, point a smart libertarian minded fellow is fond of warning me: delegates in Utah are elected representatives for electing elected representatives.  That is the opposite of inclusive, no matter how you spin it.

Problems with Primaries.

While primaries increase the net number of people deciding a nominee, they don’t necessarily increase the percentage of registered voters participating in a nomination or general election.  They are more expensive (although both sides seem to agree here more primaries are better than fewer).  And they do open the process up to more to money.

Speaking of that, the Problem with the Big Money Booga Booga Booga Arugment.

Puh-lease!  I question the real influence of TV/print/radio ads themselves on local nomination campaigns.  What is probably still the most effective in these races, the traditional mailer, is already heavily used by all candidates in the current system.  Cynicism again, but remember this fight is really a choice between what type of gaming the system you’d like to witness, and what type of campaign spending you’d like to see taking place.  The current system and the proposed changes will both be subject to influence by moneyed special interest.  Do yourself a favor and never forget that.

SB54, Ironies and Beyond.

I believe Count My Vote will be successful in getting on the ballot.  Once here I believe they will be successful at swaying voters (ironically, because of low turnout, lack of engagement) with a message that — love it or hate it — lends itself to populist, “everyone gets a vote” notions.

The parties (ironically, thanks to delegates) were foolish to not make changes themselves sooner.  Big boy politics and all that.  Frankly, the objections of executive committee members, chairs, and even elected officials will sound like the objections of the powerful elite about to lose their power to the average person faced with this choice on their ballots next November.

Prior to that we have SB54.  It’s a bit deal.  It’s an even bigger deal, if you heard Sen. Bramble in the Senate media availability on Tues, if you consider the two companion pieces of legislation mentioned (exploring e-signatures for candidates/ballots, online voting).  Those two, combined with much of what SB54 nicks from County My Vote could do more than even Count My Vote to increase participation.  I also agree with this Herbert guy that here is something distasteful about the legislature intentionally circumventing a citizen initiative.

So as you can see, personally, I remain torn.  But I hope all of the above helps cut through some of the posturing and politicking inherent in the campaigning process.  This is an important conversation to have, with potential long term effects of great importance.  What will work best could be anyone’s guess, and we should be most suspicious of those who claim to have the perfect answer.   It will be interesting to see where this all goes.





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