Mero on SB 54: It’s Time to Trust The Marketplace of Ideas

While co-hosting KVNU’s For The People on April 20, and quite coincidentally and unintentionally, I found myself in the middle of a sparring match between two people I consider my friends – State Republican Party Chairman James Evans and State Senator Todd Weiler. The issue was the current legal challenge to Count My Vote. Senator Weiler believes the challenge has run its course. James Evans believes the fight must go on.

Paul Mero on SB 54: It's Time to Trust The Marketplace of Ideas
Paul Mero.

In full disclosure, though an opinion cemented after hearing my friends argue over the airwaves, I also believe the legal fight against Count My Vote has run its course. To continue the legal fight is a waste of time in my opinion and, much worse, a public relations nightmare. I will go so far to say that if the state Republican Party doesn’t drop this fight, its leadership should be replaced, sooner rather than later. At this point, the party is wrong and seems unable to see it.

The debate over Count My Vote isn’t new for me.

After the raucous and often uncivil debate over immigration reform inside state Republican ranks, leading up to and including the 2011 legislative session, my respect and admiration for Utah’s caucus/convention system was tested. During those few years, the caucus/convention system was a delegate hotbed of wrongheaded, often irrational, politics, in my opinion. I thought, and expressed publicly, “What good is a vetting system for sound candidates and principled ideas if it’s so easily controlled by weird people and weird ideas?”

Shortly thereafter, two well-known individuals, principals from what became the Count My Vote initiative, cautiously reached out to me and wondered if I would be interested in helping push some reforms to the caucus/convention system. In a couple of meetings they correctly discerned that I wasn’t the best guy with which to align – it goes to motive. Ultimately, while I was concerned how easily a small group of yahoos could stir emotions inside the caucus/convention system, alternatives seemed to me less appealing. Little did I realize in those early conversations that the selected alternative would become Count My Vote.

I opposed Count My Vote, then and now. And I opposed it because of my innate conservatism and respect for America’s founding history – while I cherish “we, the people,” the people are often uninformed, impulsive, too susceptible to emotion and too prone to celebrity. In other words, freedom requires work and devotion and “the people” aren’t always inclined such. Utah’s caucus/convention system is, I felt and still feel, better suited to informed citizen involvement. This doesn’t mean that party delegates are smarter than other citizens. It just means they’re more involved in direct processes of democracy and therefore more often forced to serious deliberation. It also means that I believe a “primary” system, while theoretically broadening voter participation, lessens direct involvement.

And, fundamentally, I eschew the notion that government can tell political parties how they can freely associate. For these reasons, I opposed Count My Vote and, though I eventually wholeheartedly supported the bill, was even suspicious of SB 54, the compromise created by the state Legislature.

That said, conservatism is prudence if it’s anything. The truth is there is no legal recourse to defend freedom of association in this case when political parties take tax dollars to run their affairs – in other words, when political parties don’t freely associate…when they do associate at the expense of taxpayers. There is no constitutional issue at stake here.

Furthermore, my state Republican Party is entering a public relations nightmare of its own making. Prudence dictates that it pull back now while it can. Defending the core merits of Utah’s caucus/convention system is admirable. Pushing so hard as to appear like we’re only defending a few self-appointed, self-important party know-it-alls is not only self-defeating but hypocritical. For me anyway, one of the biggest arguments against Count My Vote is that a few self-appointed, self-important elites want to control Utah politics. The state party’s legal challenge at this stage of the game feels little different to me.

While I still don’t fully trust “we, the people” with my freedom, I trust “we, the people” more than “we, the few.” A free society must lean toward transparency, accommodation and openness – and I say this as a conservative who prefers privacy, reservation and earned opinions. Ultimately, I trust the marketplace of ideas.

In this day and age it is small minded to think that only our long-standing and reliable caucus/convention system can vet candidates. There are simply too many ways for voters to learn about candidates. As State Senator Todd Weiler has stated, holding personal political interviews to vet Count My Vote candidates who seek an “R” by their name is probably the worst way to vet these candidates. As uncomfortable as it is for zealous party leaders, let the political marketplace do it. The state party needs to spend more time selling its ideas to the people of Utah and less time worrying about the purity of its candidates. No Republican I know is a Republican simply because of a candidate. They are a Republican because of their devoted belief in sound ideas and constitutional principles.

The high sign of failure for a democracy is distrust of its processes. The legal challenge to Count My Vote, at this late point in time, only reveals a lack of trust in democracy – and to pursue distrust in principle is embarrassing for everyone involved.

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