Group launches counterattack to preserve caucus and convention election system in Utah

Published: Thursday, Nov. 7 2013 5:20 p.m. MST

Protect Our Neighborhood Elections is emerging as a counter voice to Count My Vote, an initiative that seeks to change Utah's election process to a direct primary instead of the state's unique caucus and convention system.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Skylar Burnside placed a call to his state representative when he was 16 years old. Since then, his increasing interest in politics has led the now 28-year-old to serve two terms as a state delegate.

Burnside said he believes his political voice, however, will be stifled if an initiative poised to put an end to Utah's caucus and convention system is successful.

Count My Vote has begun collecting signatures to instill a direct primary election process in Utah, which would change state law to give a spot on the primary ballot to all candidates who gather signatures of at least 2 percent of the voters in their party living in the jurisdiction they're seeking to represent.

Burnside, a call center worker in West Valley City, said the proposed change would make it impossible for candidates to represent small towns and everyday people in the political process, and accountability to the people would be lost.

"Politics affects us all," Burnside said, adding that people elected to fulfill public office make decisions on everything from tax code to property rights and "essentially our everyday rights."

"It will affect at least one thing that you care about," he said.

Burnside and about 50 others convened on the steps of the state Capitol on Thursday to launch Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, a campaign of the Utah First political issues committee.

The aim of the group is to shoot down the Count My Vote initiative, which is led by some of Utah's prominent political figures. The Protect Our Neighborhood Elections coalition believes the switch in state politics allows only those with fame and fortune to run for office.

"I support the caucus system because it is designed as a grass-roots system so average people can get involved in politics without having large financial resources," coalition member Tom Westmoreland said.

Westmoreland recently completed a run for the Eagle Mountain City Council in a close race that has yet to be called. He said he spent less than $1,300 in the nonpartisan contest, which he believes would be "very doable" for anyone interested in getting involved in politics.

"The more people we have involved, the stronger our political system will be and the more likely we are to have the kind of representatives that we need and want," Westmoreland said.

The only reason Kris Kimball, a co-chairman of the coalition, decided to run for a state representative office in 2010 was because she knew she didn't need to sink a lot of money into the race.

"I didn't feel like my voice was being heard by my representative's voting record," said Kimball, of Bountiful. "I decided that instead of complaining about it and complaining to the television set, why not just jump in and see if I can win the seat and then promote the principles of my party?"

Kimball didn't make it through the convention that year but felt OK about it because she hadn't wasted money on campaigning to that point, which she said would have been required under a direct primary system. Instead, Kimball concentrated on spending time with delegates, who represent their neighbors under the current system.

While the caucus and convention system is practiced by about seven states, Utah is the only state that doesn't have an alternative method for a candidate to get on the ballot.

"Utah chooses candidates based on ideas, while other states choose their candidates based on who has spent the most money to reach people with soundbites, talking points and buzzwords," according to the coalition's website, www.neighborhoodelection.org.

James Gonzales, a veteran delegate, Democrat and co-chairman of the Protect Our Neighborhood Elections coalition, said caucus meetings "bring neighborhoods together." He said the practice dates back to the 1850s, when early Mormon settlers would gather "to decide how things would be done."

"This is not disenfranchising, it's enfranchising," Gonzales said.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to identify Utah First as a political issues committee, not a political interest committee.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards

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