An exercise in democracy
March 25, 2016
I went to the caucus this week. It’s been years since I’ve gone, and probably will be years before I do again. I’ve attended caucuses for both parties, always when I’ve been supporting a candidate for local office. They are similar, but not identical. The last time I went to the Republican caucus, the check-in process was worse than airport security. If I remember right, my hand was held over the flame of a burning candle until I swore on the sacred memory of Ronald Reagan that I was a Republican. I was then instructed to kiss the toe of the statue of Grover Norquist, and allowed inside for the business at hand.
The Democrats in Utah are so terribly, pathetically lonely that anybody walking down the street in the general vicinity of the caucus is lassoed and dragged inside. All you have to do is produce a pulse, and you are named precinct captain.
This year there was a big turnout. They ran out of ballots, and in one of those moves that casts doubt on the legitimacy of the entire process, they cranked up the school’s copy machine and printed out a lot more. There was a party registration form at the top of the page, and you could vote for your choice of presidential candidates on the bottom. No secrecy in this process. Security in the handling of the ballots was casual, to say the least. A lot of people came in, cast their ballot (or potentially two or three) and went home for dinner.
If you wanted to get involved in the local offices, you had to stay for the election of precinct delegates. At that point, everybody was supposed to move to one of many very sticky tables in the middle school cafeteria. There was a table for each voting precinct. In my case, there were three of us, which frankly is three more Democrats than I would have bet lived in the neighborhood, since the beginning of time, let alone living people willing to admit to it in front of God and everybody by attending the caucus. Our task was to elect officers for the management of the precinct machine—a chairman, vice chairman, secretary, treasurer, dog catcher, and so on. There were more offices than people to fill them, and nobody wanted the jobs anyway. So we skipped that part.
The real business was electing the delegates to represent the interests of our precinct at the County and State Democratic Conventions. Two of the three of us wanted to be county delegates to support the same local candidate. The third was eager to be a state delegate to support Bernie Sanders. Two of us wouldn’t go to the state convention on a bet, so choosing was easy. We didn’t even have to resort to rock-paper-scissors. Some of the other precincts had more people show up, and appeared to be having some serious discussions about who should be delegates. The east side is torqued up over proposed zone changes, to say the least.
At the county convention, the delegates, duly chosen by showing up, will vote on the nominees for county offices. This year there are four seats on the Summit County Council up, though two of them are running unopposed. If a would-be nominee gets 60 percent of the delegate votes at the convention, there is no primary election. Otherwise, there is a primary.
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The whole process is pretty strange on the local level. I can’t see any reason to have political parties involved in county council elections. It seems like we ought to have a system where people who want to run sign up, we have a primary round to narrow the field, and then vote in the finals, with the top vote-getters elected. That’s how the municipal elections work. But the legislature, in its infinitely partisan wisdom, has decided that the quality of pothole patching on Democrat Alley is somehow improved by involving national political parties. If there is a Democrat or Republican position on off-leash dog parks, it has not come up in the debates. The Donald has not expressed his views on whether Silver Creek Village should be in the Park City or Kamas school district.
It seems like a stupid system, and most years, the turn out is so low that the potential for mischief is huge. Normally, ten people stumbling out of the No Name could take over the caucus just by showing up. This year the turnout was high, with the result that Bernie Sanders was the winner, which may or may not be mischief. It’s kind of frightening to think that consequential decisions originate out of the caucus process.
You can rest assured, however, that my dog, Elmer, will accept the nomination to the County Council, and if elected, will serve with distinction.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.