Dan Liljenquist: Senate Bill 54 is a reasonable compromise to Count My Vote

Published: Thursday, Feb. 20 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

In my opinion, SB54 strikes an important, albeit delicate, balance between the originally stated concerns of the Count My Vote proponents and the interests of our political parties.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

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It will come as no surprise to those who read the Deseret News that I am a steadfast supporter of Utah’s party-driven caucus system for nominating political candidates. The caucus system, while cumbersome and inconvenient at times, has served Utah well for decades, allowing locally elected party delegates, selected by you and your neighbors, to participate directly in the vetting of candidates for political office. I ascribe, as do others, much of Utah’s political and economic success to our unique caucus system. It is no accident that Utah is the best-managed state in the nation and the best place to do business.

Over the past year, I have been deeply concerned about the Count My Vote initiative. Originally, it was touted as an alternate path to the primary ballot, its proponents attesting that their motivation in putting forward the initiative was not to destroy the existing system, but to prod Utah’s political parties to make reasonable changes to the caucus system to encourage greater citizen participation in the political process.

Unfortunately, after negotiations between Count My Vote leaders and the political parties broke down last fall, the organizers of Count My Vote chose to proceed with an initiative that eviscerates the caucus system, removes political parties from the nominating process altogether, and mandates a direct primary election instead. This is a disastrous bait and switch that could cause lasting damage to Utah’s political institutions.

It is now up to the Legislature, the state’s pre-eminent lawmaking body, to intervene. Gratefully, with Sen. Curt Bramble’s (R-Provo) Senate Bill 54 — Elections Amendments, it is doing just that. In my opinion, SB54 strikes an important, albeit delicate, balance between the originally stated concerns of the Count My Vote proponents and the interests of our political parties.

First and foremost, SB54 codifies, word for word, the existing language of the Count My Vote initiative into Utah law, demonstrating a clear presumption that increased citizen participation in the political process is a worthy objective. Should SB54 pass and the political parties choose not to make accommodations for enhanced citizen participation in the caucus system, then the Count My Vote language will become the governing law, and Utah will have direct primaries.

That said, SB54 exempts political parties from the Count My Vote language if they (1) allow party members to vote remotely or by absentee ballot for neighborhood delegates, (2) provide a procedure to designate an alternate delegate should a delegate be unable to attend a party convention, (3) establish a 65 percent minimum delegate vote threshold to avoid a primary election, and (4) permit unaffiliated voters to vote for its candidates in a primary election. Should a political party choose to meet all of the above requirements — concessions that the Count My Vote proponents sought last fall — then the political party is designated as a “qualified” political party and is protected from the Count My Vote language.

On Friday of last week, SB54 passed unanimously out of the Senate Business and Labor Standing Committee, demonstrating tremendous bipartisan support. I, along with several others, testified in favor of the bill. I anticipate that in the coming days SB54 will receive veto-proof majorities in the Senate and the House and will be signed by the governor. Afterwards, Utah’s major political parties will undoubtedly adopt the new participation thresholds, and the caucus system will be preserved.

While proponents of Count My Vote are crying foul over Sen. Bramble’s SB54, public policy issues are, and always have been, the prerogative of the Legislature. SB54 is a reasonable compromise that will lead to greater political participation.

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