Small groups of Utah County neighbors are set to gather in countless homes in March in what is supposed to be the ultimate in grassroots politics, the purest form of American democracy.
But is it really healthy? That depends on whom you ask.
At the meetings, called caucuses, neighbors will choose one of their own to represent them in an unfolding political process that culminates in November. The word "caucus" comes from an American Indian word meaning "adviser."
Delegates selected at each caucus are empowered by their neighbors to study the issues on their behalf and then meet later in convention to decide their political party's nominees for state and national offices.
If they're Democrats, the neighborhood caucuses are March 13; Republicans will meet on March 15.
The process looks good on paper; it's politics closest to the people. The delegates, who make up two-tenths of 1 percent of registered voters in Utah, have a simple mission: to represent the ideals and values of their like-minded neighbors and to pick candidates who best represent those values.
But rarely is it that simple.
Once elected at neighborhood meetings, delegates often spend hours reading up on campaign issues and meeting with political candidates ahead of the state party convention. In Utah, because of the state's lopsided Republican majority, candidates for major offices who are chosen by GOP delegates at the party's convention are virtually guaranteed to win in the general election. A rare exception is Congressman Jim Matheson, a Democrat who has managed to stay afloat among voters in the reddest of red states.
But if you were designing a political system from scratch, wouldn't you want convention delegates to reflect the views of the voters of a given party? If so, you might want to take a close look at the caucus system. It's possible that small special interests can game the system and stack delegates representing a minority viewpoint. Recent history suggests that the delegates are looking out for something other than their neighbors' interests when they vote at party conventions.
"Usually a delegate has much more deeply held beliefs about the political system than their neighbors," said Kelly Patterson, director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "They usually have an ideologically stronger opinion about policy and politics."
Patterson said that some delegates take their role as the representative of the neighborhood seriously as they work to make sure they know who and what their neighbors support, and then take those views to the party's convention.
But others view the role of delegate as personal power, critics say. They vote for what they think is in the best interest of the neighborhood and aren't necessarily interested in what the neighbors who elected them think.
"You're not necessarily getting a faithful slice of what either party really looks like," Patterson observed. "They have much more strongly held opinions about what they want to see accomplished."
What potentially is happening is that delegates are selecting candidates that fit closer to their personal ideals and that lean further toward one end of the political spectrum -- rather than candidates who represent the more moderate group that sent the delegates to the convention in the first place, or who represent voters in general.
Some recent examples of how the system works:
• In what the New York Times described as a scene from the television show "Survivor," Republican delegates at the party's 2010 Utah state convention decided that former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett had served in Washington, D.C., long enough. Bennett survived the first round of balloting by the delegates but was ousted from the GOP nomination in the second round, eliminating the public's opportunity to vote for the popular and seasoned senator in a primary election.
Polls at the time did not guarantee that Bennett would have survived in a primary vote, but data from a Deseret News/KSL poll showed that he was the leading choice among registered Republicans at the time. Bennett led with 32 percent of Republicans to challenger Mike Lee's 12 percent. Thirty-five percent, though, said they were still undecided. Lee ended up winning the general election after facing Provo businessman Tim Bridgewater in the Republican primary.
• Democrats in 2010 saw their delegates take on one of their party's longtime champions. The Democratic delegates chose to put Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, in a primary race against Claudia Wright. Democrat delegates felt that Matheson had missed opportunities to support party causes, such as President Barack Obama's health care plan. Matheson argued to the delegates that he was a Democrat first but that he also works to serve his constituency, which is why he voted against the health care program. Matheson ended up winning in the primary against Wright netting almost 70 percent of the votes. He only earned 55 percent of the delegate votes in convention.
• In 2004 then-Utah governor Olene Walker enjoyed a statewide approval rating higher than 80 percent, but once the Republican delegates got involved at the state convention, the general voting population never got a chance to decide whether to keep her in office. Walker was removed from being considered on the ballot in the fifth round of voting by delegates.
• In 2000 GOP delegates did not oust popular Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, but they did air their grievances toward him as they booed him throughout his convention speech. Leavitt went on to win a third term as the state's governor, despite the vocal disapproval of the delegates.
Utah is one of only seven states that still uses a convention system with delegates deciding who represents a party on the general election ballot. Both major parties require a candidate to get 60 percent of the delegate vote to avoid a primary runoff.
The 43 other states in the nation all use a direct primary to choose candidates for the general election. Party leaders in Utah say the state's system is the right way to go. Others think the system is a dinosaur and that it's time for Utah to change its ways.
If not this, then what?
A simple way to change the system to better reflect general voter sentiment would be to adopt a direct primary system. However, that idea doesn't sit well with the leaders of Utah's Republicans.
"The question isn't how do we change the system ... but how do we increase participation in the system that we currently have," said Thomas Wright, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, at a recent forum hosted by the Utah Foundation.
Wright's view may be jaundiced. He is accountable to the delegates and charged with protecting their power in Utah's political world.
He argues that both parties need to do a better job at increasing participation in the March neighborhood meetings to increase the public's voice instead of overhauling the whole process. However, even if more people are involved in the March caucuses, which take place every other year, there are a finite number of delegate positions available -- 3,500 total Republican spots (687 from Utah County) and 2,700 Democratic spots (198 from Utah County).
Utah Democratic Party Leader Jim Dabakis said he thinks Utah's current system has worked well for Utah Democrats. He suggested that Utah look at allowing same-day voter registration to increase voter participation. Currently in Utah the latest someone can register to vote is 15 days before an election.
Wright said he was in of favor same-day voter registration, and House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, noted that the idea could get some attention in the upcoming session of the Utah Legislature.
"This idea of same-day voter registration is something that I think we will really talk seriously about," Lockhart said.
While allowing same-day registration could lead to more voter participation in primary or general elections, it does not address what many see as undue influence by delegates on the composition of the November ballot. Another group of Utahns is looking at another path for a candidate to find his or her way onto a primary election ballot.
Former Utah governor Mike Leavitt is leading a group of prominent political activists who want to bring change to Utah's election system to increase voter turnout. The group is working with the state Legislature to find ways to boost voter participation. It also hopes to work with party leaders from both the Republican and Democratic parties to improve the process.
Failing to achieve reform at the Utah Legislature or through party leaders, the group will push an initiative to include the option for candidates to have an alternate track to a primary election ballot that runs parallel to the current process.
The alternative method would allow a candidate to be named on a primary election ballot if he succeeds in obtaining a certain number of signatures on a petition, thus giving a voice to the general public over the delegates.
"The great thing about the parallel track is it keeps everything that is good about the caucus convention system," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a member of Leavitt's group. "This adds the component that allows the rest of your party's voters to have a say in who represents the party."
The Leavitt and Jowers group was planning to push for the petition component in 2012 but have decided to hold off on the project for two years to allow the Legislature and party leaders time to address the issue first.
Keeping the status quo
Utah's current system ensures that retail politics will continue in Utah. The system forces candidates to make personal contact with delegates and make a case for support. It is more than a 30-second TV advertisement or a fancy billboard; it is having to sell yourself to a person face to face. Supporters of the system say this ensures that the low-funded, unknown candidate can still have a fighting chance.
"Anyone can visit delegates. Anybody can do it. Anyone can call up a delegate and say 'I want to come over to your house and talk to you about the issues one-on-one and earn your vote,' " Lockhart said.
Lockhart said that the current system actually allows for grassroots groups and unknowns to have a voice, whereas a direct primary system may prevent such groups and individuals from being heard at all.
"I believe it is the most grassroots, best system in the country," said former state representative Carl Wimmer, who is running for Congress in Utah's new 4th District, and currently meeting with potential 2012 delegates to try to earn their support at the Republican convention. "It is the system where the citizens have the power, where we really truly are a government of the people by the people and for the people."
Wimmer, who has spent the last year organizing his congressional campaign, disagreed with the notion that state delegate spots are being taken by those who are out of touch with the mainstream view. He points to past candidates who have emerged from the conventions as examples of the delegates being able to pick moderate candidates.
"I really reject the idea that the caucuses have been overthrown by radicals. If that were the case, how do you explain the overwhelming support of governor Jon Huntsman? He certainly is no right wing conservative," Wimmer said.
The delegate system, though, did push forward very conservative Republican candidates like Sen. Lee and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and liberals like Claudia Wright on the Democratic side.
Wimmer isn't a disinterested party when it comes to the caucus/convention system, though, and it would be unlikely for him to criticize it. He needs delegates' support to have a successful campaign.
The next round
The delegates will once again have ultimate power in 2012. Among other races, they, not the public, will get to decide whether Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is the right candidate for the Republican nomination. Delegates will likewise decide whether Rep. Jim Matheson is Democratic enough to have the party's nomination.
Members of the public will have to wait for the delegates to do their work before knowing whom they can vote for. But voters who want more say in the system might want to start by showing up at their neighborhood caucus meetings in March. They then can have the opportunity to join the two-tenths of one percent of the voting population and have the power to decide who is on the ballot. If they are Republican, they will likely be deciding who gets the seat.
For those hoping to see a change to system, those meetings may be the first step.
"Really, the way people can make an impact, if they don't like what is happening in their party, is they have to come to the caucus meetings. They have to do it. They can't just sit back and say, 'oh whatever.' It's a Tuesday night or a Thursday night for the Republicans this year, they have to get off the couch and go down to the caucus and be heard. That is critical," Lockhart said. "If people want to make changes in the parties, that is where they have to be."
Without the delegates demanding a change in the system, it appears no change will ever come.
"I've had a lot of members, different party people over the years, that have said look, we know we should change it, it skews everything, but we can't. We are in power because of the delegates. To stick a stick in the delegates' eye, we may never get back here. So it's kind of like asking the presidential candidates to change Iowa or New Hampshire," Jowers said. "It is just not something they can do, no matter what they think about it."