Utah Mormons were officially called to repentance over the pulpit this month for not being more involved in our local political process. Specifically, the importance of attending precinct Caucus meetings. The concern was magnified by a recent poll that showed that less than a third of registered state voters have been showing up for a caucus. . Before anyone jumps to conclusions, let me make it very clear that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has always been, and remains, politically neutral. Leaders do not tell members which party to join, whom to vote for or whom to oppose. The encouragement to be involved in our government process stems from one of our basic religious tenets:
“We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” – Article of Faith 12
With dwindling numbers at state caucus meetings in a state filled with members of our church who profess to believe in “obeying, honoring and sustaining the law”, it seemed an appropriate time for a reminder. In their official letter, The First Presidency reaffirmed its long-standing position that “precinct caucuses are the most fundamental grassroots level of political involvement. They are best served by a broad representation of Utah citizens,” the letter continued, “Those who attend play a critical role in selecting candidates for public office.” In the letter, local congregation leaders were asked not to schedule any church meetings or activities during the nights of the Democratic and Republican caucus meetings so that members could participate.
So, for the uninitiated, what in the world is a Caucus? Well, I’m going to describe one to you in a minute. I’m not an expert by any means. I’m not a particularly “political person”, although I consider myself a good average US citizen who cares about my country, loves the Constitution, and definitely am willing to serve. I always try to be informed and always make time to vote. But, I’m one of the penitent crowd this week who chose to “heed the call” after a long, long hiatus from regular “caucus-ing” (in truth, the last caucus I clearly recall being a part of was at age 18 as a newly registered voter…but, I’m sure I must have gone since then. Pretty sure. I hope).
Side note: I can’t help mentioning, isn’t “caucus” such a weird word? Who says “caucus” anymore?! Seriously. Quick. Try to use it in a meaningful sentence.
“Mom fell and broke her caucus”
“We’re having shrimp stir fry with a side of caucus tonight for dinner”
“The veterinarian could not identify the caucus laying in his morgue”
Any of the above seems more likely than “A meeting of the local members of a political party to select delegates to a convention, or register preferences for candidates running for office”. Yawn.
(Hang in there camper. Don’t fall asleep just yet! I have photos and juicy tidbits coming!) So. Basically, a Caucus in Utah USA is politics at it’s “grass-roots” best (or worst).
Neighborhoods are divided up unto groups called “precincts”. If you are a registered Democrat voter, you should attend your local Democrat Caucus night (this year, Tuesday March 13), and if you are a registered Republican party voter then you should attend a Republican Caucus night (this year, Thursday March 15). Or, if you are a bit of an “unscrupulous rebel type”, I suppose you may try to crash the opposing party incognito and stir the pot (I am personally only aware of one person at my precinct meeting who did not “belong”. And he told me he was only “observing”. Fair enough). Each precinct meets for the purpose to nominate a certain number of delegates who will (hopefully) represent your collective precinct views at an upcoming convention. The Delegate votes are extremely important and actually carry a lot of power because they get to choose who the respective Republican & Democratic candidate(s) will be on the general election ballot for the entire State. The idea behind the Caucus / Delegate process is that it prevents candidates from having to spend an exorbitant amount of money to advertise to the entire population to get votes, and preventing candidates with smaller budgets from having a fighting chance. In this way, candidates with all sizes of budgets can focus their time and money on a smaller group of voters (the delegates). Seems fair enough. I learned at my caucus that apparently Utah is one of the last of a handful of states that use the Caucus system. (Don’t ask me which ones, I didn’t take the time to research it. This part of my post is getting much too technical and I don’t want to lose you…)
For those really interested, here is a video demonstrating how an “ideal Caucus” is supposed to go (**please don’t mind while I chuckle**)
This year the respective Parties and the media launched an all-out blitz encouraging Utahns to come to their Caucus meetings. There were radio and TV ads, billboards, and many letters to the editor and investigative news reports. Unless you were living under a rock in Utah, it would have been pretty hard not to hear about “the Caucus”. But, for good measure, the official First Presidency letter certainly added an extra incentive. Prior to the event, the media reported that Party organizers were holding their breath to see what kind of response they would get. But honestly, would a record turnout really come as a huge surprise?
OK. Now we get to the fun part of the post (try to act amused) where I give my recap of my personal experience of attending the 2012 Utah Republican Caucus. We live 3 blocks from the Jr. High School where our local Caucus was being held. So, we walked. ”We” meaning me and my two daughters – aged 21 and 18 – both eligible to vote now (how did they get this old?!). Mr. MoSop was excused due to a high fever and bad bought with the flu. The weather was lovely. The cars lining the street 2 blocks out were our first good sign that turnout was going to be stellar.
Our precinct had been assigned the Choir Room in the back of the school, which could probably comfortably seat 50 people, but in the end needed to accommodate nearly 200. I dutifully stood in line for 15-20 minutes to sign in and get my voting materials, cheerfully chatting with neighbors I knew, and a few I hadn’t met before. Unfortunately, after all that, I discovered my driver’s licence and voting registration card had been left on the kitchen table at home. Ugh! My daughters also forgot to bring their ID, so they jogged home to fetch everything and I walked out of the already hot and stuffy school to enjoy the fresh evening air. It was truly a lovely night. Kids were playing an informal game of baseball next door, and the sun was setting over the Great Salt Lake. It was quite picturesque and made me feel all nostalgic and ”American”. All I needed was a piece of apple pie to make the picture perfect. I was wistful we couldn’t at least hold the meeting outside…
My 21-year-old returned with the necessary ID and we headed back into the school (the 18-year-old having decided to “opt out” after earlier experiencing the stuffy building and massive crowd. I couldn’t blame her). The line into our precinct room still had a good 30 people to go, but the meeting was underway (I will have to assume from the video explanation above that we missed the reciting of the pledge of allegiance, an opening prayer and about half the reading of the bylaws). Sometimes it pays off to be last, though. We snagged a couple of empty chairs right in the front, so that was a nice little mercy.
Everything started out well organized, straight forward and all business like. Things got a bit more “interesting” as we progressed. The upside of having so many people jammed into our little room was that we had such a great turnout! Hooray for democracy! Long live the Republic! But, it became apparent that there were several downsides of having such a huge turnout.
1. A lot of bodies crammed into a hot stuffy room is not pleasant and increases generalized anxiety (someone opened a door to the outside and the cool breeze offered a bit of respite)
2. A large majority of people present had little to no experience with a Caucus, and therefore were not familiar with the process, the purpose and the protocol. Once people started finding out, many were not too happy about it. Several felt the meeting should be a candidate debate platform – but seeing as not all of the candidates had even been identified yet, it wasn’t really the place or time. Several tried to make motions to change the voting process – even right in the middle of a vote being tallied (this was the most tedious thing about our particular precinct event. With everyone getting more and more impatient we had to keep stopping and arguing about why it made sense to keep to the voting rules) From reports of other precints who ended long before ours, apparently we were among a minority of groups who kept to the set rules. A few people also chose to complain and protest about the entire Utah caucus system itself, which led to grumpy retorts that if they didn’t like it, they ought to “just leave”! (not particularly productive, but definitely adding a little “spice” to the evening).
3. 175+ registered voters = 175+ individual opinions, viewpoints and personalities. This was definitely not a Sunday School meeting! Anyone who still holds to the ridiculous notion that Mormons are “collective thinkers” simply need to attend a caucus meeting in a primarily Mormon neighborhood! Not that everyone at the meeting WAS a Mormon, and that is the point. If you were a casual outside observer, you would not have been able to tell someone’s religion. This Caucus was simply a meeting of good US citizens with individual needs, desires, viewpoints and opinions all exercising their right of free speech, and all coming to the table with different special interests who then would need to compromise.
4. Having more people at the event added up to a much (much, much…) longer time commitment. This was the biggest issue we had to deal with. Our required assignment of the evening was to choose some people to serve as our precinct leadership for the next 2 years, and then choose State delegates (3) and County delegates (6) who would also be committing to serve for the next 2 years. We were able to get the precinct leadership out-of-the-way pretty quickly. The trouble started once we began taking nominations for delegates. We ended up with 17 State delegate nominations. We needed to narrow it down to 3. This meant that each person was going to need time to stand and introduce themselves and speak a little about what was important to them and/or what issues they would be focusing on, etc. and then we were going to have to vote in rounds. The rules as outlined to us by the State (which took some time for everyone to try to understand and I don’t think everyone actually ever did) was that each registered voter in the room would vote for one person on the list and the votes would be tallied. One nominee on the list needed to get a minimum of 50% + 1 of the total votes in order to win that round. If there was no clear winner of the first round, we were supposed to keep voting until we got a winner, and then that person would fill the 1st available State delegate seat. We would then start on the next round for the second seat, and repeat the same process for the 3rd seat, and then begin on the County Delegate seats in the same manner. Well, you could start seeing people doing the math in their heads for the amount of time this was all going to take and they began to balk. It sort of turned into the parable of the separation of the “wheat from the tares” at this point, i.e. who came to the meeting grudgingly out of “duty”, and who came because they really wanted to be there and see things to the end.
The problem wasn’t really that people didn’t want to do their duty, but rather that their expectations for the way the meeting would go and how long it would actually last (see video above – ha ha) were much different from the reality. The man sitting next to me had attended the previous caucus 2 years ago. He told me that it was held in a home, only about 25 people attended, and the meeting completed in under an hour whereupon everyone enjoyed some punch and cookies before leaving in a nice mood. (sure made me wish I’d gone last year!)
It seemed to me that in general the senior citizen crowd were starting to panic because they don’t like being out after dark and were tiring out quickly, and the people with young children at home were obviously restless worrying about the babysitting situation. I was grateful to fall in the “middle” and not have those challenges, but I could certainly sympathize. I could feel the generalized anxiety of the crowd starting to build and morph into genuine tension. My daughter had a date planned for later in the evening that she was really looking forward to. She was starting to feel stressed about how long this was going to take, not wanting to miss her date. (Thanks to the new-age miracle of text messaging, she and the young man connected, discovered they were both attending precinct meetings in the same building which were running equally long, and extended the meeting time for their date). I couldn’t help chuckling. The whole event was turning into such a great sociology experiment!
Now here is when it got really interesting. A former High School teacher stood and nominated my daughter! He gave a nice little speech about what a great student and person he knew she was, how capable he thought she would be, and how nice it would be to have some younger representation at the convention. She was completely shocked and a bit panic-stricken. [Frantic whisper: "Mom! Mom! I don't know what to do!"] Bless her heart, she hurried and prepared a little speech and when it was her turn she got up in front of the crowd with a smile and expressed her willingness to serve. It was delightful watching the whole thing unfold! So, now the meeting took on a whole new excitement. My daughter and I suddenly had a vested interest in the whole process. Of course, this meant we couldn’t sneak out early now, but it also meant we no longer wanted to. This was probably the most valuable lesson of our evening. I’ve heard quite a bit of grumbling among Facebook friends today about how “boring” their caucus was, or what a ‘waste of time’ they felt it was. For me, it wasn’t boring at all! What was the difference? From my observation, the people who were willing to settle down, readjust their expectations and “roll up their sleeves” to get the job done were having a much better experience. And, the people who were actually either nominated personally or had someone they cared about on the list seemed to be having the best experience. They had become actively invested. So, the big takeaway of our evening was that if you want these “grass-roots” meetings to feel worthwhile, you really have to be more than a body in a chair, you need to get involved! You can nominate someone, or you can even nominate yourself, if you want. From my personal experience, the meeting is guaranteed to take on a whole new meaning for you.
My daughter looked at all of those names on the board and kept leaning over and whispering “Mom, I’ll never make it! I’m way too young. I should drop out! No one will ever vote for me!” But, she was wrong. They did. She got several votes. True, not a huge amount, but she got more than some of the adults on the list who had given fancy speeches. Despite some motions from the crowd that people with “limited votes” should “drop out” to streamline our process, my daughter stood her ground and saw the process to the end. (a proud Mom moment)
After nearly 3 hours, our crowd had finally successfully chosen our delegates. (Each voting round had fewer and fewer totals. People were definitely tiring out and “defecting” along the way) – But, guess what?! My daughter was indeed elected as one of our County Delegates! Her excitement was so contagious and delightful it made my whole night! Of course she is new to the entire process, and she has no idea what she is really getting into yet. But, this is her chance to learn first hand about the political process, to make her voice be heard, and to feel like her vote really counts. (And, yes, her date turned out to be fun, too.) Later that night she said, “Mom, I’ve had such a really radically cool day, haven’t I?”
Yep. Who knew a Caucus could be radically cool? Glad I heeded the call. – MoSop
This post was featured in the Deseret News on 3/19/2012