The Truth About Utah's Caucus-Convention System


Recently, Salt Lake County GOP Party Leadership sent a mailer to 161,000 registered Republicans detailing the benefits of the caucus system, with the intent of coercing voters to only cast their ballots for Republicans that were chosen at their respective conventions. Party leadership left out any Republicans that are on the ballot from signature gathering efforts- quintessentially arguing that the only “true” republican candidates were those chosen on average by less than 1% of registered republicans. 

The mailer also included a link to a “caucus booklet” that is filled with misinformation regarding the history and benefits of the caucus system. 

At People4Utah, we are advocates for free, fair, and transparent elections. We are disappointed by party leadership’s actions. Our organization wants to ensure that regardless of any given voter’s political inclinations or affiliations that they are provided with complete information to make the best decision for themselves and their families.

Caucus Booklet Claim #1: The Righteous Foundation of The Neighborhood Caucus

The caucus booklet paints a picture of the neighborhood-caucus system as a gleaming example of American principles created by our founding fathers. While the caucus system that originated in Boston was instrumental in galvanizing efforts opposing British colonial rule, often credited with sparking the fire leading to the revolutionary war, this version of history told by party leadership only tells half of the story. 

The Boston Caucus system is often credited as the origin of the proverbial “smoke filled room” in which a small group of political elites make decisions for entire communities. There is no clear history surrounding the early neighborhood-caucus system, but many historians believe that it was founded around 1719 by Elisha Cooke Jr., who was considered one of the wealthiest men in the province in which he resided. He was known to be a heavy drinker, owning a popular tavern in Boston where the caucus would often meet to promote candidates that were in alignment with their political goals.

Amongst Cooke’s companions included Deacon Adams, father of Samuel Adams, who was also considered extravagantly wealthy. They were often known to manipulate members of the caucus and colonial voters by buying them alcohol and throwing lavish parties for the community to push their political agenda

Although the intended goal of the caucus was to protect the interest of the middle class, the influence of political elites often penetrated the fabric of the decisions made during neighborhood caucus meetings. The undue influence of political elites in the caucus system is best described by Founding Father and Second President of the United States, John Adams, who stated in his personal diary, that: 

This day learned [I Learned of] the Caucas Clubb… There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garrett to the other. 

There they drink Phlip I suppose, and there they choose a Moderator, who puts Questions to the Vote regularly, and select Men, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are Regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town…. 

They send Committees to wait on the Merchants Clubb and to propose, and join, in the Choice of Men and Measures.”

Adams’ implication of the caucus waiting on Merchants club is often interpreted as the members of the caucus system catering to the needs of other wealthy and influential members of the community to push forward the caucus’ agenda, implying that the most wealthy of Bostonians still were the sole decision makers for their communities. 

The caucus meeting John Adams attended has been likened by historians as the original “smoke filled room” that preceded the legend of the Blackstone Hotel in 1920, in which the presidential nomination of Warren G. Harding was determined by our country’s most powerful senators and political influences of the time prior to the public’s vote.

While the caucus system is often portrayed as a democratic and grassroots process, its historical roots suggest a different reality. The manipulation and control exerted by political elites have long been a part of its fabric, casting doubt on the fairness and transparency of this method- which is further highlighted by the Utah State GOP allowing a mere fraction of Republicans to make decisions for their entire communities. 

The actions of party leadership in promoting a skewed version of history only serves to undermine the principles of democracy that they claim to uphold. It is crucial for voters to be aware of these influences and to demand a more open and equitable electoral process.

Caucus Booklet Claim #2: The Failure of Direct Primaries

Republican Party leadership has often portrayed Utah’s direct primary system as a failure and a Democratic ploy. However, contrary to these claims, the adoption of direct primaries in Utah, championed by figures like Herbert Maw, enjoyed significant public support. Maw’s advocacy for direct primaries was not merely a partisan endeavor but was driven by a widespread desire among Utah citizens for a more inclusive and transparent electoral process.

Herbert Maw was a pivotal figure in Utah’s political history, noted for his staunch advocacy in reforming the state’s electoral process. As a Democrat, Maw served as a state senator before ascending to Utah’s governorship from 1941 to 1949. 

Throughout his career, he steadfastly aimed to democratize elections and increase accessibility for voters. Maw viewed the direct primary as a crucial reform to circumvent what he perceived as a caucus-convention system dominated by party insiders and not representative of the broader electorate. His eventual success in winning the governorship through a direct primary underscored the system’s capacity to better reflect Utah’s diverse interests.

While detailed data on voter turnout in Utah’s 1940 gubernatorial election is limited, it’s evident that the outcome was not the result of Democratic manipulation. Utah, like many Western states, overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party that year, with Franklin D. Roosevelt securing 62.25 percent of the vote against Wendell Willkie, a significant victory for Democrats.

Maw’s instincts about the direct primary system have been validated over time. Interestingly, candidates who emerged as frontrunners in convention votes often faltered in subsequent primaries. Between 1947 and 1955, out of 82 candidates vying for 41 state offices, 25 ran unopposed. Among the remaining 56 candidates, 11 who led in convention votes ended up losing in the primary, highlighting that the convention’s preferred candidates did not always prevail in the broader electorate.

More importantly, caucus participation has been at an all time low this year, with less than 10% of registered Republicans participating- fueled by ineffective planning by the party, a disdain for the vitriolic tactics of the caucus-convention system, and general feeling of disenfranchisement. 

Maw may have led the charge for a direct primary, but during the time there was also broad public support for the idea due to the failings of the caucus system which are now too eerily familiar in our modern world. 

It was reported that prior to the 1937 replacement of the caucus-convention system with a direct primary that participation in primaries had been floundering due to a lack of engagement and participation. 

Critics argue that the direct primary was repealed because party insiders lost control over the electorate. However, when the caucus-convention system was reinstated with a hybrid approach, it retained an open primary format where voters could still nominate candidates of their choice regardless of party affiliation. The legislature attempted to alter this with the 1965 Utah law mandating voters declare their party ballot preference for the primary election in an attempt to close the primary. This law passed with bipartisan support, despite public outcry and media criticism forecasting low voter turnout and questioning its necessity.

Between August 1, 1966, and the primary election on September 13, 1966, the Deseret News published 19 articles over 15 days about the new law, primarily presenting neutral or supportive views. However, following the primary, the Deseret News editorialized for the repeal of the law, reflecting broader public sentiment against it. KSL-TV similarly criticized the law’s risks outweighing its benefits, echoing the concerns voiced by citizens to both Democratic and Republican party headquarters.

The backlash was significant enough that the 1967 Legislature swiftly repealed the Party Registration Law in response to public pressure. Legislators acknowledged that the law lacked public support, citing surveys indicating less than 10 percent approval among respondents. 

In the early 2000’s, Republican party leadership again changed the process and closed their nomination process, citing itself as a private organization who had the right to control its own nomination process. 

Since then, participation and support for the caucus system has severely dwindled, culminating with what we have seen most recently in the results and attitudes displayed at the 2024 nominating convention. Many of the nominations were chosen by a fractional amount or registered Republicans, with recent polling signaling that an alarming number of convention nominations will be overturned

Caucus Booklet Claim #3: The Caucus System Provides Strong local Representation

The Utah GOP would have you believe that the caucus-convention system emphasizes strong local representation through biennial local caucuses, where neighbors elect county and state delegates, with opportunities for anyone to attend and run for delegate positions. 


Party leadership also posits that state delegates also represent approximately 160 of the 636,000 active Republican voters, leading broad and accurate representation of the political temperature of all republicans, while ensuring inclusivity of often neglected and marginalized rural and minority communities, however, many of these claims are blatantly false, while others are severely misrepresented. 


Over several election cycles, we have seen that delegates do not represent a majority of their republican peers when their decisions are challenged in primaries. In fact, since the inception of SB54, convention results have often been reserved. This is due to the fact that past convention nominees were decided by 5%, and sometimes as low as 0.16% of registered Republicans. 


These patterns have continued in 2024, with the caucus attendance and the subsequent results of this year’s Presidential Poll only representing 9.5% of registered Republicans, and many of the State Convention Nominees chosen by an average of 1% of registered Republicans. 


Additionally, the caucus-convention system creates more walls than it tears down when it comes to voter accessibility. Caucus is only held one evening.This schedule excludes a significant list of community members:


  • Active duty military
  • Missionaries and mission presidents
  • First Responders that are on duty
  • Nurses and other hospital staff that are working night shift
  • The elderly and disabled
  • Individuals that are experiencing unexpected illness
  • People who are traveling


Essentially, if you can think of a scenario that would prevent you from attending caucus on a Tuesday evening, that can lead to you being excluded in making critical voting decisions for you, your family, and your community. 


This is why there is no replacement that works better than a primary system in which each voter has a direct and meaningful vote. Regardless of the type of primary implemented, if our current mail-in and absentee ballot system remains strong in Utah, voters have three weeks to vote in ways that are in alignment with their values and schedules, preventing everyone regardless of their demographics from being excluded from the election process.

Caucus Booklet Claim #4: Focus on Grassroots and Increased Accountability.

The county party’s assertion that delegates serve as unpaid volunteers meticulously researching candidates through in-person events over several weeks, leveling the electoral playing field, fails to withstand scrutiny. This portrayal of the caucus-convention system as an exceptional vetting process is unrealistic and overlooks several critical shortcomings.

To begin with, the notion that delegates thoroughly scrutinize and evaluate candidates through multiple in-person events is misleading. While there are a few “meet the candidate” events, these gatherings are not always well-attended by delegates. 

Moreover, delegates do not always engage with all potential candidates, especially if they have predetermined preferences upon being elected—a situation more common than the Utah GOP would care to admit. 

During the last convention cycle, we have reports from several candidates that they were able to engage in person with fewer than 30% of delegates elected in their race. This directly contradicts leadership’s argument that delegates “thoroughly scrutinize and evaluate candidates.” 

Furthermore, the claim that the caucus-convention system enables individuals from any socio-economic background to run for office based on their ideas and hard work is overly optimistic. 

In reality, the system favors those with flexible schedules and financial stability who can afford the time and effort required to participate actively. This inherently excludes candidates who may have equally valid perspectives but lack the means to dedicate extensive time to political engagement- just like any other primary system in the country.

Additionally, the assertion that the process levels the playing field by minimizing the influence of financial resources and connections is dubious. Candidates endorsed by party insiders or well-connected delegates often enjoy significant advantages in terms of visibility and support, regardless of their qualifications or the merits of their platforms.

In contrast, advocates for electoral reform argue that direct primaries offer a more inclusive alternative. By allowing all registered voters to directly participate in nominating candidates, a direct primary system reduces barriers to entry, promotes transparency, and ensures that candidates are accountable to a broader segment of the electorate.

Ultimately, while the dedication of delegates to researching candidates is commendable, the caucus-convention system’s limitations in promoting a truly equitable and inclusive electoral process are undeniable. Moving towards reforms that prioritize broader voter participation and transparency in candidate selection would better serve Utah’s diverse population and uphold democratic principles of fairness and representation.

Caucus Booklet Claim #5: 30,000 Total Delegates

The claim that delegate representation is strong in Utah’s caucus-convention system due to the sheer number of state and county delegates—totaling 30,000—is misleading and fails to reflect the system’s inherent shortcomings in democratic representation. While there is a large number of delegates, the reality is that they do not uniformly participate or vote in each convention race, leading to a skewed and unrepresentative decision-making process.


For instance, in the gubernatorial race, which impacts all Utahns, the outcome was determined by just 3,694 state delegates. This figure is starkly contrasted against the backdrop of 987,458 registered Republicans in the state, highlighting that less than a percent of party members ultimately decided the nominee. Similarly, House District 62’s representative was chosen by 74 county delegates out of 8,638 eligible Republicans in the district, underscoring how a minute fraction of voters wield disproportionate influence.


Moreover, in Salt Lake County’s council-at-large race, 1,335 county delegates determined the outcome despite there being 204,886 Republicans in the district. This scenario results in less than a fraction of a percent of registered voters making critical decisions that impact the entire community.


This system of delegate selection, where a tiny fraction of party members can decide primary outcomes, raises serious concerns about its representativeness and fairness. Such a setup undermines the principle of democratic governance, where elected officials are supposed to reflect the diverse interests and viewpoints of their constituents.


In contrast, a direct primary system would allow all registered Republicans to participate in nominating candidates, thereby ensuring broader voter engagement and representation. This approach aligns more closely with democratic principles by empowering a larger segment of the electorate to have a say in selecting candidates who best represent their interests.


Ultimately, the argument that delegate representation is robust because of the sheer number of delegates overlooks the stark reality that most convention races are decided by a tiny fraction of registered voters. This disparity calls into question the legitimacy of the caucus-convention system and underscores the need for electoral reforms that prioritize inclusivity, transparency, and the fair representation of all Utah Republicans.

Caucus Booklet Claim #6: Signature Candidates Aren’t Good Candidates

The assertion that allowing candidates to gather signatures bypasses the scrutiny of the Neighborhood Caucus System oversimplifies the role of signature gathering in Utah’s electoral process. Signature gathering serves as an alternative path for candidates aiming to broaden their support beyond convention delegates. This method enables candidates to engage directly with a larger segment of voters who may not participate in caucus meetings due to time constraints or other reasons, demonstrating their ability to garner grassroots support across a diverse electorate. This complements the scrutiny conducted by delegates in the caucus system.

Regarding the Primary Election, where top convention candidates compete, it acts as a crucial mechanism ensuring that nominees reflect broader party preferences. This process fosters competitive elections and provides voters with clear choices among top contenders, thereby enhancing democratic participation and accountability.

While the argument that delegates keep elected representatives accountable and government transparent holds validity, relying solely on a delegate-centric system risks inadvertently excluding broader voter input. It’s essential to balance the delegate’s role with mechanisms allowing for direct voter participation to ensure comprehensive representation of community interests.

Concerning the vetting process, while candidates address inquiries from delegates, its effectiveness and fairness can vary. Candidates may not have equal opportunities to present their platforms thoroughly, especially if delegates hold preconceived preferences or limited interactions with all candidates, potentially impacting the nomination process’s fairness.

The claim that allowing signature gathering favors incumbents and wealthy politicians or invites corruption and cronyism lacks substantiation. Instead, signature gathering can level the playing field by enabling lesser-known candidates with grassroots support to challenge established incumbents. This diverse candidacy fosters a healthier political environment where ideas and merit, rather than financial resources alone, drive electoral success.

It is noteworthy that Utah’s signature thresholds are notably higher—150% to 470%—than similar races in other states. Lowering these thresholds would foster greater grassroots activity and significantly reduce ballot access costs, encouraging greater participation in the electoral process and enhancing accessibility for all candidates.

Signature candidates often engage with a broader spectrum of voters in their district compared to those reliant solely on convention delegates. By collecting signatures, candidates appeal to a diverse range of constituents, not just the fraction represented by convention delegates. This requirement compels signature candidates to articulate policies that resonate across the electorate, reflecting deeper community-wide concerns and interests.

The success of signature candidates over convention nominees underscores their ability to attract broad-based support within their district. These candidates consistently prevail in primary elections because they present platforms appealing to a wider audience beyond convention delegates, enriching the democratic process by expanding voter choice and participation.

Caucus Booklet Claim #7: We Will End Up Like California

The claim that Utah will mirror California’s economic and demographic challenges if it adopts a direct primary system instead of the Neighborhood Caucus System is a misrepresentation of the issues at hand. Utah and California have distinct economic landscapes, industries, and regulatory environments. The economic issues in California are tied to a variety of factors, including housing costs, taxation, and regulatory frameworks, which are not directly related to their primary election system. 

Additionally, California’s population dynamics, including its decline, are influenced by high living costs, tax policies, and other socio-economic factors. Utah’s population growth and economic health are driven by different dynamics, such as lower living costs and a more business-friendly environment. Moreover, many of California’s immigration challenges are due to its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border, a factor that does not apply to Utah. 

There is no direct causal relationship between the type of primary election system and broader economic challenges. California’s economic issues cannot be solely attributed to their use of a direct primary system. Many states with direct primaries do not face the same issues as California. In fact, direct primaries can lead to higher voter engagement and participation, reflecting a broader spectrum of voter interests and potentially leading to more representative and effective governance.

Direct primaries allow a wider range of voters to participate in the candidate selection process, not just those who attend caucus meetings. This leads to candidates who must appeal to a broader electorate, ensuring they address issues important to a larger segment of the population. By gathering signatures, candidates demonstrate their ability to garner grassroots support from a diverse cross-section of the electorate. Direct primaries provide a clear and transparent method for candidate selection, where the preferences of the broader electorate are directly reflected in the outcomes. Candidates who win in direct primaries are accountable to a larger voter base, which can lead to policies that better reflect the needs and desires of the community.

Economic challenges in California, such as unemployment rates and business migration, are the result of complex and multifaceted issues, including policy decisions, cost of living, and business regulations, not the direct primary system. Utah’s strong economy, lower unemployment rates, and business-friendly policies provide a solid foundation that is not threatened by adopting a direct primary system.

Utah can adopt a direct primary system tailored to its unique context and strengths, ensuring it remains economically vibrant without the expense of disenfranchising voters. Switching to a direct primary system will not automatically result in Utah facing the same economic challenges as California. The direct primary system has the potential to increase voter participation, ensure broader representation, and maintain robust constitutional principles.

Moving Forward

The historical roots of the caucus system reveal that it has often been controlled by political elites, contradicting its portrayal as a purely democratic and grassroots process. The undue influence of these elites has persisted over time, as evidenced by the small percentage of voters currently deciding nominees within the Utah GOP.

Furthermore, the caucus-convention system, while promoted as providing strong local representation and increased accountability, often fails to engage a significant portion of the electorate. The exclusionary nature of the caucus schedule, the financial and time barriers for potential candidates, and the minimal delegate participation in candidate vetting all highlight the system’s limitations.

The adoption of a direct primary system offers a more inclusive and transparent alternative. Direct primaries allow a larger segment of the electorate to participate in the candidate selection process, ensuring that nominees reflect the broader preferences of voters. This system promotes higher voter engagement and accountability, fostering a healthier and more democratic electoral process.

Ultimately, it is crucial for voters to be aware of the influences and shortcomings of the current caucus system and to advocate for reforms that prioritize inclusivity, transparency, and fair representation. By doing so, we can uphold the democratic principles that ensure our elections are truly representative of all citizens.

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