I was struck by something said during floor debate on the compromise between “Count My Vote” and the legislature.
Rep. Jon Stanard worried if lawmakers passed SB 54, it would lead to the death of the caucus system within a few years, that it would not exist any more. That same sentiment was echoed by Rep. Brian Greene, who said the dual track system provided for in the bill would cause the caucus system to “wither and die.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement for the caucus system. If giving voters and candidates something different will cause it to literally disappear, then why are we spending so much effort keeping it alive in the first place? That’s admitting it’s a flawed system and once something better comes along, Utahns will abandon caucuses and conventions like rats from a sinking ship.
How caucus supporters have dealt with the whole “Count My Vote” situation is as perfect an example of the five stages of grief as there could be.
Let’s break it down:
Stage 1 - Denial: “There’s nothing wrong with the way we choose candidates. We don’t need to change at all. These guys will never go forward with an initiative and, even if they do, they’ll never get the signatures they’ll need to get on the ballot.”
Stage 2 - Anger: “How dare you ask us to make any changes to our nominating system. You can’t tell us what to do! The ‘Count My Vote’ backers are just a bunch of rich people who couldn’t get elected by delegates who have superior political knowledge and awareness. They know they’re not real Republicans or Democrats, so they have to game the system. It’s the only way they can get elected. Plus, they’re lying to voters to get them to sign the petitions, and voters really don’t understand what they’re signing.”
Stage 3 - Bargaining: “Now that it looks like you’ll blow past the 102,000 signatures you’ll need to get on the ballot, we might be open to making some changes. We still want you to show us that you have that many signatures, and we might still sue to keep this from going into effect if somehow you do get on the ballot and it passes.”
Stage 4 - Depression: “If this thing passes, it will be the end of the caucus system as we know it. Utah has the ‘best managed state’ in the nation for a reason and that’s because of the caucuses. If they go away, that will put everything we have right now in jeopardy.”
Stage 5 - Acceptance: “I don’t like this bill, but it’s the only way we are going to be able to preserve some semblance of the caucuses. It stinks, but I’m voting for it because I have no other choice.”
You only go through these five stages when you are grieving something. And you only grieve for things when they are dead or dying.
Speaking of death.
I wonder if a number of Utah lawmakers realize they are signing their own political death warrant by supporting the deal between “Count My Vote” and legislative leadership.
With the advent of a direct primary election, which is what SB 54 creates, the old gameplan for winning elections goes out the window.
Now that there will be an alternative path to the ballot outside of the caucus system, many legislators will have to ratchet back their rhetoric in order to survive a primary. I’m not sure they can.
Sen. Curt Bramble, who brokered the deal, says the new dual track system is going to put candidates in a tough position.
“If I use the caucus system and forego getting signatures, I’m basically telling the public they don’t matter,” says the Senator. “If I get signatures without going through the caucus, I’m telling the party they don’t matter.”
Having to make your case to a larger audience will naturally have a moderating effect on Utah’s political landscape. Many lawmakers tell me privately that they can’t wait to get rid of the “crazies” on both sides of the aisle.
Crazies? Consider this.
Republicans are going to find out that most unafiliated voters don’t really care about “Agenda 21.” They don’t have a visceral hatred of Common Core or the federal government. They’re not as skeptical of climate change. That stuff played well in the caucus meetings and among delegates, who are much more conservative than the rest of the electorate.
It’s not just Republicans facing a brave new political world. Democrats will realize the most important issue to Utahns is not marriage equality or a non-discrimination amendment.
The “Count My Vote” petition organizers hold all the cards here. They are well on their way to gathering the 100,000 signatures needed to get their initiative on the ballot. Opponents of the deal think CMV is bluffing and want lawmakers to call them on it. A source tells Utah Policy that the group is well north of 100,000 signatures right now, pulling in more than 10,000 in the last week alone. With more than a month left, that means the group could easily hit 150,000 signatures by the April deadline.
What will the new dual track system mean for current legislators? I suspect some will decline to run if this is in effect in 2016. Moving outside of their comfort zone and having to face a primary may just prove to be too much change to deal with.