Grassroots political participation is under attack in Utah and GOP is fighting back

January 08, 2019 | By DANIEL ORTNER

Originally published by The Hill, January 8, 2019.

If you want to understand the importance of grassroots volunteers in a democracy, spend some time working political campaigns and party activities at the state and local levels. I experienced this lesson firsthand when I got involved with the Utah Republican Party as a law student.

But in Utah, that grassroots model, based on a system of caucuses and conventions, now is being threatened — and the party is taking to the courts to protect its successful system of political engagement.

My experience in Utah party politics taught me how much grassroots involvement matters. While studying law at Brigham Young University, I attended my first Utah Republican Party precinct caucus — essentially a community meeting. That first step ultimately led to my selection as precinct chair, a role that gave me the opportunity to attend county and statewide party conventions and vote as a delegate for nominees.

Thousands of delegates and precinct chairs throughout Utah would tell a similar story: They meet with candidates who want to talk about issues, such as religious freedom and Medicaid expansion. At county and state conventions, they interact with state and federal elected officials including all of Utah’s U.S. House representatives. They participate in debates regarding the party platform, listen to candidates deliver floor speeches and vote on candidate nominees. It’s an unparalleled hands-on education in how politics works at the state and local level.

The Utah Republican Party chose the caucus and convention system because it allows for building a cohesive party and encourages thousands of grassroots volunteers to get involved. The caucus also allows party members to ensure nominees will be fully committed to the party’s platform and represent the party’s values. The Utah system also allows for the victory of insurgent candidates — such as when Sen. Mike Lee unexpectedly unseated incumbent Bob Bennett in a 2010 primary challenge.

Of course, any system for selecting party nominees has tradeoffs. For example, while the Utah caucus and convention system excels at providing unparalleled access and opportunity to politically engaged party members, it may be less effective at getting less engaged voters to participate.

An insurgent challenge can be a strong mechanism of accountability for powerful incumbents who have lost touch with local voters and their concerns. At the same time, the need to impress grassroots activists can result in more ideologically-driven candidates than other types of candidate selection processes.

Regardless of the advantages and disadvantages of Utah’s caucus and convention system, each political party should be allowed to choose the method it considers to be best for it.

Unfortunately, a coalition of outside groups and incumbent officials want to force Utah’s political parties to change their established nominee selection process. In 2014, the Utah legislature passed a law compelling state parties to offer an alternative primary path to party nominations outside the caucus and convention system. Under this new procedure, nominees are no longer required to win the support of party delegates or to affirm that they support the party platform.

The goal of this change was to promote more “moderate” candidates. But the more likely result is that local candidates will be drowned out by outsiders with no connection to local interests and with the deepest pockets, rather than to those who reflect party members’ philosophy and preferences. The grassroots political community that the Utah Republican Party has cultivated may be eradicated.

The Utah Republican Party challenged the law, claiming this undue government interference violates the party’s right to freedom of association under the First Amendment. However, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the party’s interest in freely selecting its nominee was outweighed by the state’s interest in managing elections.

In response, the Pacific Legal Foundation, joined by the Cato Institute and Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, filed a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to take the case.

The brief argues that a state is not allowed to interfere with the internal affairs of a political party in order to influence the types of nominees who are chosen. Moreover, the internal procedures established by a political party are entitled to constitutional protections apart from, and in addition to, the rights of individual party members.

We urge the Supreme Court to take this case to protect the Utah Republican Party’s unique system, because grassroots political participation, voluntarism and local control matters.

Daniel M. Ortner is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, which litigates nationwide to achieve court victories enforcing the Constitution’s guarantee of individual liberty.