David Rodeback's Blog
Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Notes on the Convention
If you wonder what a state party convention is like in non-election years, or if you want to know what Utah Republicans did and didn't do on Saturday, or if you're in American Fork Precinct 9 and you want a report on my duties as a delegate, this post's for you.
As a state delegate from my precinct in American Fork, I attended the Utah State Republican Party Organizing Convention Saturday in Sandy. Here are some notes for anyone who may be interested in what happened there or what a state party convention is like.
I arrived at the South Towne Expo Center more than an hour early, registered and obtained my credentials and voting keypad, ran the gauntlet of people passing out fliers, and spent quite a while listening to the three candidates for state party chair at their respective booths. Then I bought a banana and some juice at the concession area, found a seat in the main hall in the Utah County section, discovered (with a little growling) that there was no wi-fi service on the floor -- isn't this the 21st century? -- briefly wished I had a smart phone, and then studied for the half hour remaining before the convention began.
I studied proposed changes to the party's constitution and bylaws, plus several proposed resolutions. I had read them before the convention, but this time I made notes about whether to support or oppose them when they came up, marked key passages of the text, and scrawled a few questions and comments in the margins of my 30+-page convention program. In several cases, I waited to hear debate on the measure before deciding how to vote.
Attendance at nominating conventions in election years can exceed 95 percent of delegates. Saturday, attendance was about two-thirds of 4000 total delegates, which isn't bad for an off-year organizing convention. Delegates leaving before business is concluded is sometimes a problem in state and county conventions, but this time most stayed until the end of business, give or take a couple of short speeches and the final motion to adjourn.
The whole experience was helped considerably by electronic voting, as opposed to paper ballots. I estimate that the convention would have been at least two or three hour longer with paper ballots. The voting and the tabulating both would have taken much longer. We used the same system last year, and the delegates generally loved it. Still, there was a motion early in the convention to use paper ballots, because electronic systems theoretically can be hacked.
My own opinion is that fraud is probably easier to perpetrate with paper ballots. In any case, we heard explanations of the system and precautions which were taken to secure it, and then the motion failed almost unanimously. The delegates were eager to do the convention's business -- even overwhelmingly defeating a motion to adjourn before consideration of several of the proposed resolutions and before the last few speeches -- but, apparently, we preferred to do it expeditiously.
The convention started at 10 a.m. and proceeded almost without breaks until almost 4:30 p.m.
We elected James Evans to be the new state party chair. He defeated both challengers handily on a single ballot. He's a former Salt Lake County party chair, and among the three he impressed me as having the clearest vision and the clearest sense of what to do to enact it -- in terms of actually running a state party. One other candidate, Marco Diaz, fell short with me on the latter point, though he was pretty sensible on immigration and attracting ethnic minorities to the party. The third candidate, Aaron Gabrielson, came across consistently as a right-wing ideologue, whether or not his alleged ties to FreedomWorks were real or not. It remains to be seen whether we'll like Evans as much as we liked outgoing chair Thomas Wright; that's a pretty tall order.
As if I weren't already turned away, Gabrielson declared in his convention speech and in speaking at his booth that we should have a Republican in every seat at every level of government in Utah. In my dubiously humble opinion, Utah is already too close to one-party government and is suffering the consequences. I don't want to see it get even worse. I like Republican majorities but not perpetual super-super-majorities.
In the race for state party vice chair, we eliminated a well-known right-wing ideologue on the first ballot, then favored a candidate from Washington County, Willie Billings, over a previous sidekick of James Wright in Salt Lake City. I don't know what other delegates were thinking, but I was thinking that splitting the ticket geographically would be a healthy thing. This was the only race that took two ballots. (Winning these races required 50% of the credentialed delegates plus one.)
Michelle Mumford defeated two other candidates for party secretary on the first ballot. Dave Crittenden was elected treasurer by acclamation, because he was running unopposed.
We heard short speeches from several elected officials, including the following:
There were several other speakers, not including US Congressman Jason Chaffetz (3rd District), who had to leave before his opportunity arose. Convention agendas and their timing can be unpredictable.
Voting on Party Constitution and Bylaws Changes
There was a fairly good discussion on the convention/caucus system, of which the delegates are generally fond. (Small wonder; we're insiders by definition.) The discussion focused on what should be the threshold for victory at the convention which would allow candidates to avoid a primary. Right now, it's 60 percent. A decade or two ago, it was 70 percent. There were resolutions proposed to change it to two-thirds and back to 70 percent.
I value the systems' roots at the neighborhood level, the much greater and more sustained scrutiny candidates receive from delegates than from primary voters at large (which makes incumbents more accountable, I think), and the way the conventions weed out the weak candidates and the most extreme ones, so that, when there are primaries, they're usually between the best candidates, with no also-rans diluting our attention. I don't particularly value the system, as many delegates do, as a way to avoid primary elections altogether, though I am aware that this saves money and partially avoids a favorite political pastime, the Republican circular firing squad.
If you have to have 60 percent to avoid a primary, that means the second-place candidate has to have over 40 percent to survive the convention and force a primary. A lot of the opinion on this subject among the delegates seems to focus on the fate of incumbents. Many opponents of raising the 60 percent threshold take that position because it's easier for a challenger to get 60 percent than two-thirds or 70 percent, so with a lower threshold an incumbent in second place is less likely to survive the convention.
After studying the results of convention races for the last dozen years or so, I decided to vote in favor of raising the threshold to two-thirds, because this would make it more likely that an incumbent in first place would still face a primary. A challenger would only need one-third of the convention vote to survive, not 40 percent.
The proposed change to two-thirds was defeated, about 56 to 44 percent. (It would have required a two-thirds vote to pass, but it fell short even of a simple majority.) The proposed change to 70 percent was postponed indefinitely (in translation, killed).
A non-binding resolution supporting possible improvements to the caucus/convention system -- everything from allowing early registration to having caucuses on Saturdays -- was defeated, to my disappointment. So was a constitutional change allowing a bit of flexibility in time and registration procedures. I voted for that one, too.
A proposed constitutional change to allow county parties the option of assigning whole or partial state delegates for election by small precincts which otherwise wouldn't receive them failed. ("Partial" delegates would be shared by two precincts.) I voted for it, thinking that they should have representation even if it makes the overall representation in the state slightly less proportional. I think Salt Lake County getting 1295 delegates instead of 1296, or Utah getting 787 instead of 788, is worth leaving as few precincts as possible unrepresented. But that's just me.
We passed a couple of housekeeping matters, clarifying the appointment of replacement delegates and allowing counties the option of electing alternate delegates. I voted for both.
I voted against a change creating the option of preference voting in precincts as an alternative to multiple ballots, but it passed. I wasn't strongly opposed. Preferential voting makes sense to me in principle, in its place. But it reduces the opportunities for electing compromise candidates and eliminates the very useful short speeches usually given by surviving candidates before each ballot. It's also more complicated, and that means to me that there's too much opportunity for confusion at the caucuses. I've been to caucuses where the precinct chair struggled to explain the simpler multiple ballots method clearly -- and confusion in ballot processes is the worst kind of confusion at a caucus. (To learn more about preferential voting, read this description from Robert's Rules of Order.)
We passed a proposed change requiring party Central Committee votes to be recorded and publicized. I voted for it; I'm not a fan of secret ballots by elected representatives, and that's what Central Committee members are.
A proposed change to establish a separate, parallel process for the convention to propose bylaw and constitution changes without prior review by the Central Committee was postponed indefinitely. I voted against that motion, because I wanted to see how a vote on the question would go, not because I favored the proposal. I don't have any beef with the current process.
Resolved or Not
We passed a mild resolution in favor of "reasonable and responsible" federal immigration reform, after making it a bit milder than it was when it was proposed. I voted for this. Then we defeated the resolution I really liked on immigration, endorsing the Utah Compact. I would have liked it to be even stronger, inviting the state legislature to man up and endorse the Compact, but it failed as it was. I felt a little better in defeat, thanks to a delegate or two who cogently objected to other delegates' wanton misuse of the word amnesty, a common right-wing offense.
I voted for, and we passed, a resolution calling for the repeal and defunding of ObamaCare and urging the governor and legislature to reject the Medicaid expansion it mandates.
I would happily have voted for a sound, reasonable resolution against Common Core, on the grounds that federal control of public education is even worse than state control, and because it involves the building of a massive database of information the government has no business collecting or keeping. (This is a more powerful argument right now, thanks to political thuggery at the IRS.) But I voted against the poorly-written resolution we actually passed.
A lot of people who are somewhat interested in politics, or at least concerned enough to consider their options and then vote on Election Day, will find both the convention and my account of it tedious and boring. I can't imagine many of them reading this post to this point, even if some of them started it, about 2000 words ago. I didn't write this for them.
My motives are two: to report on my fulfillment of duties as an elected delegate from my precinct, and to say the following.
If this sounds interesting, enjoyable, and rewarding to you, you might consider running for state delegate in your party's next neighborhood caucus. If you're not sure, or you want to get your feet wet before diving into the deep end, you might consider running for county delegate instead. It's easier to win, the work load is lighter, and the convention tends to be shorter, or at least closer to home. If you're not ready for that yet, at least pick a party and attend its caucus next March.
Comment by David Rodeback (5/22/2013):
Here's a piece by Bryan Schott about the coming pitched battle over the caucus/convention system. There will likely be a ballot initiative about it this November.
Here's a Salt Lake Tribune article about the convention. Trust the media to care more than the delegates about the party chair's skin color. (We defeated the white guy and the Hispanic in favor of the African-American, but we're Republicans, so race was not a significant issue or grounds for a lot of self-congratulation when the African-American won.)
Here's a Deseret News article on the convention's business.
Copyright 2013 by David Rodeback.