SALT LAKE CITY — Republicans have taken "a great first step" toward improving Utah's unique system for selecting party nominees by approving absentee ballots and other changes, state GOP Chairman James Evans said Monday.
The changes were made by the Utah Republican Party Central Committee on Saturday, the same day the Count My Vote initiative petition drive to replace the nominating system with a direct primary election began collecting signatures.
Evans described the initiative as the "agitation" that prompted action.
"These were changes that were certainly needed," he said. "I think the fact that Count My Vote is pushing to eliminate the caucus system, most certainly the party has taken note."
Count My Vote Executive Director Taylor Morgan said the GOP is "headed in the right direction," but a direct primary election is a better way to achieve the initiative's goal of boosting voter turnout.
"We thank them for finally taking this issue seriously," Morgan said. But he said the changes are a reaction to the initiative's momentum and an acknowledgement of the flaws in the current system.
Several hundred signatures were gathered Saturday in Salt Lake City and Cedar City, Morgan said. Alliance for Good Government, the political issues committee behind the initiative, just reported having more than $400,000 on hand.
Utah First, a political issues committee formed to fight the initiative, has raised a little more than $5,500, including a $5,000 contribution from the Iron County Republican Party.
Wasatch County GOP Chairman Aaron Gabrielson said the changes are "a dramatic overhaul in modernizing these caucus meetings" and shouldn't be dismissed by Count My Vote.
"Almost everything they've complained about just got fixed. To hear them say, 'Too little, too late,' that's really disappointing," said Gabrielson, a former candidate for state party chairman.
Republicans had previously rejected efforts to alter the system that allows candidates with enough support from delegates chosen at neighborhood caucus meetings to avoid a primary.
That includes a proposal from Count My Vote to raise the vote threshold candidates must receive at the party convention to avoid a primary in exchange for scrapping the initiative.
In September, party leaders from around the state who make up the central committee turned down a proposal from Evans until he complained they were making it hard to defend the caucus and convention system against the initiative.
The changes passed Saturday are intended to address concerns raised by Count My Vote that the current system excludes parents, shift workers and others who aren't able to attend the meetings, held on a single evening throughout the state.
Now those Republicans will be able to vote by submitting a ballot and a copy of their identification. The party leaders also agreed to come up with a way to accommodate Utahns in the military or serving religious missions.
Other resolutions deal with giving caucus-goers more time to meet with delegate candidates, creating online and electronic systems to speed up the check-in process, and renaming caucus night "neighborhood caucus elections."
A resolution recommending a more streamlined voting process will be studied.
Count My Vote is backed by a number of prominent Republicans, including former Gov. Mike Leavitt and political consultant LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News.
The group, which also includes Democrats such as former first lady Norma Matheson, must collect more than 101,000 signatures statewide to qualify for a spot on the November 2014 general election ballot.