After eight years on the Tooele County Commission, Colleen Johnson was pretty much a known commodity to local voters. Some would have gladly returned her for another term. Others would certainly have wanted her defeat. In the end, however, none of those voters really counted. In a county with roughly 37,000 people of voting age, 81 delegates made the decision to end Johnson’s time on the commission at last week’s Republican county convention. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: This isn’t democracy.
But it is history repeating itself. In 2006, sitting county commissioners Matt Lawrence and Dennis Rockwell were also kicked out of office by a small pack of party delegates — remaking the county’s highest governmental body without any say from voters. On a state level, last year saw the removal of a sitting U.S. senator, Bob Bennett, by convention delegates despite polls showing a majority of Utahns would have returned him to Washington.
No matter what you think of any of the incumbents mentioned above, the margin for removing an incumbent from office at the convention level is simply too thin. Make the wrong handful of people angry and it won’t matter how many terms you’ve won or how popular you are with the general electorate. This is doubly true in a state dominated by one political party.
Yet party insiders love the convention system. They’ll tell you it rewards the most passionate, informed voters — themselves, naturally — by letting them narrow down choices before the ignorant masses get involved. Ironically, that was also the rationale put forward by party bosses to defend elections in the former Soviet Union, which were not done directly by the people but rather via Communist Party “workers councils” called soviets. It’s a rationale that’s also served dictatorships, monarchies, theocracies and one-party states quite well over the ages.
The convention system basically elevates delegates over voters, and leaves even politicians who should be judged on long track records scrambling like contestants in a reality show. Ask yourself how many times you’ve heard Sen. Orrin Hatch or Gov. Gary Herbert give a general address to the people of Tooele County on issues affecting us. Yet both of those political heavyweights spoke at last week’s Republican Party convention as they attempted to woo delegates. The private parties for delegates will really ratchet up this week with the Republican Party’s state convention set for Saturday. There will be plenty to eat and drink. People will ask questions about important issues affecting them, and they will often get substantive answers. Promises will be made.
There’s only one problem: You won’t be there. In fact, you weren’t invited. That level of democracy is reserved for delegates, and after all, you’re just a voter.