No caucus means fly-over counties

The following is our op-ed published in today’s Deseret News.

For years, former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt led a failed effort to create a presidential primary in the West, hoping to remedy the longstanding concern that Utah and other surrounding states are “fly-over states,” meaning that candidates don’t spend much time or attention here. Now, Leavitt and his like-minded associates are promoting an effort to create this same problem in Utah.

The “Count My Vote” initiative—a proposal to dismantle Utah’s hybrid caucus/convention and primary system and move to primaries alone—would disenfranchise rural counties with sparse populations around the state, thus creating “fly-over counties” that would fail to attract candidates for state-wide office during a primary or general election.

In promoting his presidential primary, Leavitt’s goal was to “be better able to attract presidential candidates to discuss the region’s issues.” The concern was then, as it is now, that presidential candidates see little value in spending their time and attention on a state that will assuredly vote Republican and has few delegates to sway a vote. “The voice of the West is going to be heard if only faintly” under the current system, Leavitt said.

His effort, if successful, would have made Utah “a place where the candidates come early and often to develop organizations, develop relationships and get to know the people,” Leavitt once said.

What’s hypocritical about this position is that if Count My Vote’s initiative were to pass, the voice of rural Utah counties would be heard only faintly, if at all. What candidate for Governor, for example, would bother spending several days touring sparsely populated areas in Utah whose votes will not likely sway the outcome?

Moving Utah to a primary-only model will significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the voice, influence, and concerns of rural residents who will fall off the radar of state-wide candidates. It’s simple math: candidates will focus their limited time and money on the most populous areas where commercials, robocalls, and mailers can have their most potent effect. Taking a trip to Piute County would be seen as a waste of time.

While it can be further improved, the current caucus/convention and primary system ensures that voting communities around the state are heard to a greater degree than they would without representation by delegates. The concerns and perspectives offered by rural voters are important for state-wide candidates to consider and accommodate; Utah’s Governor should be beholden to citizens of all kinds—not just those located in Utah’s major population centers.

Leavitt’s presidential primary plan would have given Utah greater influence in the selection of presidential candidates, elevating our voice relative to other states around the country. His Count My Vote initiative effort works against that ideal, and diminishes the influence of our important rural communities.

Count My Vote is comprised of wealthy urbanites who stand to profit, both in terms of money and political power, should their efforts succeed. A decentralized caucus/convention system reduces their power, and ensures that candidates get out and shake hands with supporters—including rural ones—rather than spending their time chasing large campaign checks and blanketing the state with advertisements.

Utahns should be wary of empowering this group of political insiders and their associates, but rural Utahns especially should be extremely hesitant to endorse an initiative that will eliminate their influence and cut them off from future political campaigns. It’s bad enough that Utah is a “fly-over state” for presidential campaigns. Count My Vote’s initiative will only exacerbate the problem.