Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY — After two successful fundraisers within a week, the leader of an effort to change the way political parties in Utah nominate candidates said a proposed initiative petition drive is ready to go.
"There's nothing that will stop us," Rich McKeown, president of Count My Vote, said following recent dinners to raise money for the group founded by prominent Republicans. "We're feeling confident."
McKeown declined to say how much money had been donated at the fundraising events held at Zions Bank but said the show of support was enough to settle concerns about financing the initiative.
"This has been really well received. People are energized and enthused about it," McKeown said. "I think we've been sufficiently encouraged by people's willingness to both step up and bring others to the plate to step up as well."
He said the price tag for gathering the signatures needed to get the initiative on the 2014 general election ballot and campaigning for its passage will be about $1.5 million.
Just what the initiative would do to change the state's unique caucus and convention system for selecting party candidates has yet to be decided. A poll is underway to see what option voters prefer.
The choices are between doing away with the current system in favor of a direct primary or keeping the system but creating an alternative way for candidates to get on a primary ballot.
Already ruled out is moving to a so-called California-style primary, in which the two top vote-getters advance to the general election ballot regardless of party. McKeown said that type of primary "just doesn't feel right as we talk to people."
The goal of the Count My Vote effort is to turn around Utah's declining voter participation. The state has fallen since 1960 from being among the top five states in voter turnout to being near the bottom in recent years, he said.
Although no date has been set to launch the initiative petition drive, McKeown said that may start this fall. "We believe signatures can be gathered in an intensive effort in three to four months," he said.
More than 100,000 voter signatures must be collected to qualify for the November 2014 ballot, in at least 26 of Utah's 29 state Senate districts by mid-April of next year.
Count My Vote may have competition from the state Republican Party, which is putting together its own initiative petition drive to preserve the current system, which allows party delegates rather than voters to choose candidates.
State GOP Chairman James Evans has said he believes enough signatures could be gathered at caucus meetings to put the party's initiative petition, dubbed "My Vote Counts," on next year's ballot.
But McKeown said Count My Vote isn't concerned about the impact the similarly named party initiative may have.
"I haven't given this one ounce of thought. If they move forward, that's their prerogative," McKeown said, suggesting their proposal sounds like an attempt to confuse voters. "We'll just plug ahead and deal with our initiative."
The effort by Count My Vote, which includes former Gov. Mike Leavitt; political consultant LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News; and University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics head Kirk Jowers, began in 2009.
That's when Leavitt and McKeown, who served as Leavitt's chief of staff in Utah and in Washington D.C., returned to the state after a stint in the nation's capital in the administration of former President George W. Bush.
They formed a political issue committee, Alliance for Good Government, and began raising money to start an initiative petition drive to earn a spot on the 2012 ballot before deciding to wait.
Since then, McKeown said the group has approached legislative and party leaders seeking changes. Lawmakers had little interest, he said, and both GOP and Democratic party delegates rejected their proposals earlier this year.
The alliance, which is expected to change its name to Count My Vote, reported a balance of nearly $6,400 at the beginning of the year. The latest contributions to the group must be reported within 30 days of receipt.
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