Public Opinion Poll: Would Caucus Changes Increase Voter Participation?

June 11, 2013  |  Posted in:  |  No comments

Media reports for months have contained claims by those wishing to change Utah’s caucus/convention system that have largely gone uncontested. These claims suggest that reforms to the current system, in whatever form they may ultimately take, will increase voter participation. Here are a few recent claims, with emphasis added:

  • Former Senator Bob Bennett: “The open primary would not be new to Utahns; we already use it in mayoral elections. Republicans shouldn’t fear it because most of the winners would still be Republicans, just as most of the winners in California are still Democrats. However, enabling more voters to participate in the process, and thus feel more connected to election results, would be a good thing.” (Deseret News, June 3, 2013)
  • Political reporter Bob Bernick: “So, you have state Senate Republicans refusing to allow same-day voter registration because they don’t want more Utahns to vote – especially more Utahns who wouldn’t be voting like them. And you have the state GOP trying to purposely confuse voters at the polls over a citizen initiative petition (Count My Vote) aimed at getting more moderate, reasonable GOP candidates before voters. Both actions are more evidence that the top of the Utah Republican food chain cares little about the voting rights and the will of rank-and-file Utahns.” (Utah Policy, June 7, 2013)
  • Hinckley Institute of Politics director Kirk Jowers: “Every other state has reformed in some way to make it more responsive to technology that has developed since 1890, and more amenable to people participating,” said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. (KSL, May 24, 2013)
  • Deseret News editorial: “Many Utah voters, however, feel disenfranchised by the process, and some experts cite disillusionment with the caucus system as one of the primary reasons behind Utah’s declining voter turnout in recent years. Many feel the decision has already been made for them by a relative handful of people, and, in some cases, that’s exactly what happens at the state conventions.” (Deseret News, May 23, 2013)

Last week, we sought to either validate or refute these claims based on polling data. Specifically, we randomly surveyed Utahns who, according to the Utah voter database, had not participated in primary or general elections during 2010 and 2012. Out of 1,517,258 total voters in the database (updated as of November 2012), 669,570 met this criteria. In other words, 44.1% of registered voters in Utah did not vote in these elections.

We surveyed 400 random individuals within this group during June 5-8, 2013 via an automated phone call system. Potential survey participants were screened by first verifying that they had in fact not voted in these elections, and that they were currently over 21 years of age (to ensure that they were of voting age during the 2010 elections, and thus eligible to vote despite not having done so). Sampled voters were contacted and administered a questionnaire over the telephone. The margin of sampling error is ±4.9%.

1. Do you believe that Utah is a democracy or a republic?

26.3% of Republicans correctly stated that Utah is a Republic.
32.3% of Democrats correctly stated that Utah is a Republic.
26.1% of Independents/Unaffiliated correctly stated that Utah is a Republic.

2. Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: it is important for every eligible person to take part in the political process by voting.

(Options rotated) 3. What is the primary reason you do not vote? Please listen to the following options carefully. Remember that pressing 0 will repeat this question.

57.8% of those who stated that they don’t vote because they don’t think it will make a difference also said that they believe it is important for every eligible person to take part in the political process by voting.

4. Are you familiar with how the caucus/convention system works in Utah, whereby Utah’s two major political parties select their nominees?

56.6% of Republicans stated that they were familiar with how the caucus/convention system works.
47.7% of Democrats stated that they were familiar with how the caucus/convention system works.
62.2% of Independents/Unaffiliated stated that they were familiar with how the caucus/convention system works.

64.6% of those who state that they don’t vote because they don’t like the candidates on the ballot were unfamiliar with how the caucus/convention system works.

Prior to the next question, those who indicated that they were unfamiliar with how the caucus/convention system works were read the following explanation:

In the caucus system, members in a political party gather together in their neighborhoods and elect delegates to represent them, research the issues and candidates, and cast a vote on their behalf to help select the party’s nominee who will run in the election against challengers from other political parties. Delegates cast their votes at a convention. If a candidate wins more than 60% of the vote, he or she receives the nomination. If no candidate achieves that level, the top two candidates compete in a primary election. Voters then select the candidate who will appear on the general election ballot.

5. Do you favor or oppose the caucus/convention system?

Here is the breakdown for the same question, answered only by those who stated that they were already familiar with how the caucus/convention system works:

Here is the breakdown for the same question, answered only by those who stated that they were previously not familiar with how the caucus/convention system works:

Here is the overall breakdown of this question based on political affiliation:

6. Do you favor or oppose changing the election process to make it possible for candidates to bypass vetting by delegates in the caucus/convention system and have their names placed on the primary election ballot?

Here is the breakdown for the same question, answered only by those who stated that they were already familiar with how the caucus/convention system works:

Here is the breakdown for the same question, answered only by those who stated that they were previously not familiar with how the caucus/convention system works:

Here is the overall breakdown of this question based on political affiliation:

7. Would being able to choose from more candidates increase your likelihood of voting in an election?

76.9% of those who stated that they haven’t been voting because they didn’t like the candidates believe that more candidates would increase their likelihood of voting. (53.8% strongly, 23.1% somewhat)

8. Do you believe that low voter turnout in elections changes the overall quality, efficiency, or ideological makeup of those serving in the government?

37.2% of those who answered yes to the above question also stated that they do not vote because they believe it won’t make a difference or because they are turned off by politics and are uninterested in election outcomes.

9. What is your age?

Analysis

The results of this public opinion poll shed light on previously unsubstantiated claims made in the media by those supportive of efforts to reform Utah’s caucus/convention system. Targeting our questions directly towards those who have not been participating in Utah’s elections can help policy makers, party activists, and concerned citizens determine how best to take action.

For example, many consistent non-voters stated that illness or ignorance were the culprits. These are things that through education can be remedied, regardless of any procedural changes made in election law. Vote by mail drives, better advertising of early voting, and other efforts can substantially improve voter turnout.

Of course, indifference and apathy are key factors in this demographic as well. Lack of participation in two primary and two general elections over the past several years suggests that even if procedural election changes are made, many non-voters may not make it to the ballot box.

The poll results show that 46% of respondents favor changes to the caucus/convention system such that candidates can bypass the delegate process and have their names placed on the ballot. Almost an equal number, 43%, have no opinion on the matter. Of course, specific reform proposals may generate more support or opposition as various initiatives (and counter-initiatives) move forward.

Importantly, 57% of respondents feel that they would be more interested in voting if they had the opportunity to choose from more candidates. This is the main contention of the claims previously mentioned. It should be noted, however, that 40.1% of these individuals were unfamiliar with Utah’s caucus/convention system which is where the main candidate selection process currently takes place in Utah’s main political parties.

It is common to see opinion polls surveying caucus delegates, attendees, or Utah voters in general. The opinions of these groups are well known and often sought. Today’s poll results shed light on a key demographic rarely heard from in Utah’s political discourse, and the statistics compiled here may prove helpful during discussions in the months and years ahead.

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