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GOP leaders to consider initiative to preserve caucus system, may hear from A.G. John Swallow

Published: Friday, June 21 2013 6:47 p.m. MDT

This May 18, 2013, file photo, Utah Republican Party's Chairman James Evans addresses the Utah Republican Party's annual organizing convention in Sandy, Utah. The central committee is expected to vote on a resolution backed by Evans that would authorize him to move ahead with a counter initiative, already dubbed, "My Vote Counts."

Rick Bowmer, AP

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SALT LAKE CITY — State GOP leaders are set to decide Saturday if the party should give voters an alternative to the proposed Count My Vote initiative petition drive that would change how political parties nominate candidates.

Embattled Attorney General John Swallow has also been invited to address his fellow Republicans at the party's state central committee meeting in Sandy, but a spokesman for Swallow said Friday he hadn't decided whether to attend.

Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said even if Swallow isn't there, central committee members will likely be talking about the federal, state and local investigations the attorney general faces, including a new probe by the Legislature.

But the recently elected party chairman said he doesn't expect the central committee, made up of party leaders from throughout the state, to call for Swallow's resignation or take any other action while the investigations are ongoing.

"I think they'll be more in the mood to ask questions and find out what's going on," Evans said. "At this point, the party making a statement, I just don't see the benefit of that."

A UtahPolicy.com/KSL poll of political insiders this week found that three-quarters of Republicans believed Swallow would either be impeached by the Legislature or resign, compared with 83 percent of Democrats surveyed.

The central committee is expected to vote on a resolution backed by Evans that would authorize him to move ahead with a counterinitiative, already dubbed "My Vote Counts."

"It's fair to say it's to protect the system," Evans said Friday of the party's initiative. He said the initiative being put together by a group of prominent Republicans including former Gov. Mike Leavitt is flawed.

"They want to move away from the nominating process being done through the caucus/convention system. I just think that's a fundamental mistake," Evans said. "They're trading one ill for what I think is worse."

The resolution in support of a party initiative describes the current system for choosing candidates as one that "reduces the influence of big money, incumbency, and high name recognition" on the selection of nominees.

Under the current system, party members choose delegates at neighborhood caucus meetings who then vote for nominees at party conventions. Candidates can avoid a primary election by winning at least 60 percent of the delegate vote.

Supporters of changing the system say it limits voter participation and has hurt turnout at the polls. Caucus participation by both Republicans and Democrats increased last year after encouragement by the LDS Church, but it is traditionally low.

Count My Vote initially tried to get Republicans to make some changes themselves in the system, but those were rejected by delegates at last month's state GOP convention.

Democrats are set to discuss replacing the current system with an open primary at their state convention Saturday. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams called on his fellow Democrats to make the change, calling the current system "arcane."

Rich McKeown, president of Count My Vote, said the group is about to begin polling Utahns to see if they prefer an open primary, a California-style primary where the top two vote-getters to advance to the general election regardless of party, or keeping the current system while allowing candidates an alternative means to get on the ballot.

McKeown said the initiative effort will move forward even if the Democrats choose to move to an open primary.

"It would require both parties adopting those kinds of reforms for us at this point to conclude our initiative efforts," he said.

As for the GOP's "My Vote Counts" initiative, McKeown said he's not sure why the Republicans are "resorting to an initiative."

Evans said the central committee Saturday will also look at ways to boost caucus attendance in the future, including possibly tying turnout to the threshold candidates must receive at convention to avoid a primary.

"If we don't have a representative turnout at caucus, there should be a remedy at convention," Evans said, suggesting the threshold could be raised as high as 70 percent if enough Republicans don't participate in their caucus meetings.

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