SANDY — The elephant in the room at Thursday night's Republican neighborhood caucuses was the specter of an alternative process for candidates to qualify for the primary ballot.
This was the last time — barring legal challenge or legislative change — that the caucus-convention system will be the sole means for candidates to get on the primary ballot in Utah.
Starting in 2016, candidates can bypass party caucuses and get on the primary ballot if they gather enough signatures. However, the traditional caucus system will remain in place.
Sandy resident Jacques Koncurat said he regularly attends his neighborhood caucus meetings because “I don’t think it’s enough to vote in the primary not knowing really what’s going on. We’re here to inform ourselves, and it’s the best way. It’s more grass roots.”
Koncurat was among several hundred caucusgoers who packed the commons area of Alta High School to begin the process of selecting candidates for the primary election in June.
He said he prefers the traditional system because it encourages widespread involvement in the political process. Attendees talked politics and elected county and state convention delegates.
“I think the caucus system is a good way to do it. Otherwise, you’ve got a lot of people who really don’t know anything other than they’ve got money and they’re able to spend a lot of it on advertising,” Koncurat said.
Jannifer Young, a middle school teacher from Sandy, said she has mixed feelings about the Count My Vote effort and the compromise struck under SB54, which establishes the dual track to primary elections starting in 2016. It also allows unaffiliated voters into Republican primaries, which have only been open to registered party members.
“I feel like with the caucus system, there are a few people speaking for a large number of people, and they may not speak for everyone,” she said.
Young said she signed the Count My Vote petition mainly because of her belief that “just because it's done this way doesn't mean it should always be done this way."
In Syracuse, married couple Michael and Jamie Johnson got their five children settled in for the night so they could attend their neighborhood GOP caucus at Syracuse High School.
“(We’re concerned about) being able to hold our elected officials accountable and then being able to stand up for traditional family values,” Michael Johnson said. “That’s what we’re looking for.”
Johnson said he worries changes to the caucus system could give an advantage to candidates with better financial backing, and he hopes voters will continue to attend caucus meetings after the new law goes into effect. Johnson said he believes participation in his precinct has increased in recent years.
Jamie Johnson said she believes the caucus meeting gives her a voice. She hopes local party leadership and candidates will do more to familiarize voters with the people on the ballots "so that you can know before you come who you’re voting for and what they stand for," she said.
Paul Bissell, who has served in numerous positions in his Clearfield precinct for more than two decades, said he looks forward to the caucus, though this year he was dismayed to see half as many participants in his precinct as compared with last year.
“I just have to wait and see who shows up,” he said, standing in front of the registration table. Bissell sported a belt buckle declaring him a “proud American veteran,” one of the many reasons he says he participates in the caucus system.
“I served this nation for over 20 years to give them the freedom they have. And after that 20 years, I start exercising my right to vote to try to choose the best people to govern America,” said Bissell, a U.S. Air Force veteran.
“The government we have is what we get by nonparticipation," he said.
In Legislative District 32, which covers an area including Sandy and Draper, Chairman Craig Ulrich said the caucus system is more work for politically interested Republicans but "it works very well." Petitioning one’s way onto the primary ballot would only embolden special interests “who would grab the spotlight because they have the money to do it," he said.
The traditional system ensures elected officials are accountable to the people who elect them, and it encourages participation of people from all walks of life, Ulrich said.
“If we were to go to direct primaries, it would destroy the grass-roots system,” he said.
Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans did not return email, telephone and text messages Thursday seeking comment about the caucus meetings or the compromise struck under SB54.
Earlier, the Utah Republican Party issued a statement by Evans that said the party was pleased that the Legislature found a way to preserve the current caucus-convention system, saying it “gives an average citizen a realistic chance of being elected to public office without having to expend great sums of money."
“While we may not fully agree on the details of the compromise, we are supportive of our Republican legislators because we believe they are acting in good faith, making the best of a difficult situation, and doing what they believe is in the best interest of Utah,” he said.