Grassroots political participation under attack in Utah

November 13, 2018 | By DANIEL ORTNER

Anyone who’s ever been involved in state or local political campaigns and party activities understands the vital importance of grassroots volunteer activity. 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, is now 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 the real value of grassroots involvement. While studying law at Brigham Young University, I attended my first Utah Republican Party precinct caucus—essentially a community meeting. A politically engaged friend suggested I run for precinct chair. I won, and my friend was selected as vice chair. As caucus chairs, we would attend county and statewide Republican Party conventions and vote, as delegates, for party nominees.

Having grown up in Florida, a massive state with a far less cohesive party structure, I did not know what to expect. Soon, I found that candidates for local offices were contacting me to talk about issues I cared about.

For instance, I had lunch with my district’s state House representative, where we discussed his stances on religious freedom and Medicaid expansion. At county and state conventions, I interacted with state and federal elected officials, including all of Utah’s U.S. House representatives. I also participated in debates regarding the party platform, listened to candidates deliver floor speeches, and voted on candidate nominees.

My experience was typical—shared by thousands of delegates and precinct chairs throughout the state.

As my experiences show, 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.

Of course, any system for selecting party nominees has tradeoffs. The Utah caucus and convention system excels at giving politically engaged party members unparalleled access and opportunity. But it may not be quite as good at getting less engaged voters to participate.

It also allows for the victory of insurgent candidates—such as when Mike Lee unexpectedly unseated the incumbent, Senator Bob Bennett, in a 2010 primary challenge. But the need to impress grassroots activists may result in more ideologically driven candidates than other types of candidate selection processes, such as open primary elections.

Regardless of the pluses and minuses of the caucus and convention system, each political party should be allowed to choose which method is best for it.

Unfortunately, certain outside groups and establishment candidates want to force Utah’s political parties to change the way they select nominees in order to promote more “moderate” candidates. The Utah legislature passed a law that compels political parties to offer an alternative path towards the party nomination. Using the state-mandated procedure, nominees are no longer required to win the support of party delegates or to affirm that they support the party platform.

If the Utah law stands, small insurgent candidates will be drowned out by outside candidates who have no connection to local interests, and the grassroots political community the Utah Republican Party has cultivated may be eradicated.

The Utah Republican Party challenged the law, claiming it 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.

This week, the Pacific Legal Foundation, joined by the Cato Institute and Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, filed a 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 put a thumb on the scale of the types of nominees chosen. It also argues that 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 matters. I know—I’ve seen first hand how powerful it can be.

Here is PLF’s brief.