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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: The stakes have been raised in the Count My Vote debate

Published: Sunday, Feb. 16 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

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Utah lawmakers are grappling with many difficult issues, but discussions regarding the political party nomination process have been subdued — until now.

Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, has introduced legislation that could dramatically raise the stakes for the Count My Vote initiative, creating contentious debate inside and outside the Capitol. We explore the ramifications.

Is the Bramble legislation a credible option to the current system or is the Count My Vote initiative the superior choice to increase citizen participation in politics?

Pignanelli: "Better to be the architect of something you can endorse than the placard waving protagonist standing in the rain." — Tim Woods

The statewide conversation of whether the state should abandon the delegate/convention system is becoming more emotional, controversial and divisive. Sen. Bramble — being Sen. Bramble — cannot help himself from entering any fray and creating common ground (as he did with immigration and most heated issues in the Legislature).

The "Bramble Alternative" infuses more complexity into the process, but enhances democratic elements throughout the entire election cycle. His rather elegant solution preserves the convention architecture unique to Utah (and beloved by so many), but provides a 48-hour window to select delegates through both precinct meetings and the Internet. This novel idea promotes the "neighborhood feel" many Utahns appreciate when choosing delegates yet also expands opportunities for moderates to triumph over extremism. He reduces the entry barriers for candidates whose party struggled in the last election. But the most attractive feature Bramble offers is the mandate that nonaffiliated voters can participate in partisan primaries. Right-wingers are viciously attacking the plan and the sponsor, which — as political insiders know — only invigorates “Brambo” to push harder.

If implemented, Bramble's proposal would significantly change many dynamics in Utah political campaigns — for the better.

Webb: As a passionate volunteer supporter of Count My Vote, I’m pleased that Bramble and virtually all reasonable people have concluded that Utah’s party nomination process needs significant reform. It would not have happened without the hard work of Count My Vote to mobilize and engage citizens. I believe Bramble genuinely wants to improve the system and broaden participation. However, his clever bill could destroy Count My Vote if the political parties adopt SB54 reforms — leaving the caucus/convention system intact, still susceptible to manipulation and control by extreme elements of the political parties.

Count My Vote’s proposal asks voters to choose whether all voters, through a direct primary, have a voice in selecting party nominees, creating broader participation in our political system, instead of continuing to centralize power in a select few caucus attendees and convention delegates, many of whom do not reflect mainstream Utah positions.

How should initiative supporters respond to Bramble and the Legislature? Does this help or hurt their efforts?

Pignanelli: The graveyard of failed Bramble bills is a small piece of real estate. His elegant solution has something for everyone and should pass the Legislature. Then once Utahns learn of the legislative changes, enthusiasm for Count My Vote will diminish. Therefore, I respectfully suggest that supporters of Count My Vote declare victory and endorse Bramble's efforts. Count My Vote leaders did not waste money or work — they revealed flaws in the state political structure and are directly responsible for prompting Bramble to structure a compromise. Count My Vote and Bramble can spend the rest of 2014 working out the kinks in preparation for the 2016 elections.

Webb: The legislation is disturbing because it could circumvent constitutional provisions allowing citizens, via ballot proposal, to enact a law. It’s aimed at rendering moot CMV’s intent to allow voting citizens to determine if they want direct primary elections or to continue with the caucus/convention system.

While legislators may have the authority to do what they are contemplating, it is extraordinarily immodest for lawmakers, midway through a citizen process allowed by the Constitution, to thwart the ability of the people to enact a law. Count My Vote supporters have, in good faith, worked tirelessly gathering signatures, following all proper procedures, to place a proposal on the ballot. For the Legislature to usurp that constitutional right is incredibly arrogant.

Will Utah's political nomination process ultimately change by the end of this year?

Pignanelli: One of three things will happen in 2014: Count My Vote will prevail in the election; Bramble's legislation will be implemented; or nothing is formally enacted, which would anger major GOP donors who demand and successfully garner changes in the delegate/convention process.

Webb: This will be fascinating to watch. Even if the Legislature passes SB54, Count My Vote intends to aggressively gather signatures and qualify the direct primary law for the November ballot. So a big political battle will rage all spring, summer and fall. Will voters defy the Legislature and overwhelmingly approve Count My Vote despite SB54? Will that prompt an expensive court battle with legislators arguing citizen votes are meaningless?

Will this fight be framed as business leaders and mainstream Republicans vs. the right wing? Will it become a big issue in legislative races later in the year? Will the Republican Party be irreparably divided? Will Democrats create an alliance with mainstream Republicans to support Count My Vote? Will Count My Vote supporters mount a citizen referendum to repeal SB54?

So many fun questions.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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