The fight over the Count My Vote initiative began when the petitioners — those unhappy with the current caucus/convention/primary system — asked the officials — those holding elected as well as party positions of power — to consider abolishing it.
The officials said no.
The petitioners then suggested making incremental changes. “If you won’t abandon the present system,” they said, “can’t you at least make it less restrictive? Open the caucuses up a bit to make it easier for people to participate? Raise the percentage of convention votes needed to win the nomination to make primaries more likely? Reopen the primaries to all voters, as they used to be?”
The officials said no.
They liked the present system just fine, which is understandable because they were elected by it. They also did not believe that the petitioners constituted any threat to its continuance. Under Utah’s Constitution, the only way to change things when elected officials refuse to do so is by means of a citizens initiative, and the procedural bar built into that process is set very high. The officials were sure the petitioners would never be able to clear it.
Many petitioners agreed and became discouraged. However, since it was the only card they had to play, others threatened to attempt an initiative anyway, to see if that would change any minds.
The officials said no.
The petitioners then tested the political waters to see if they should even consider trying an initiative and, somewhat to their surprise, found them warmer than anticipated. Polls showed that a solid majority of Utah voters would support the initiative, fundraising appeals brought in enough money to get the effort started and the signature gathering process, once underway, moved ahead briskly. The petitioners were heartened; what had looked like a quixotic undertaking was shaping up as a real possibility, perhaps even a likelihood.
The officials apparently came to the same conclusion.
A bill was introduced in the state Legislature that would turn the initiative into choice rather than a mandate, effectively nullifying it. Parties could sidestep it by adopting a caucus/convention/primary system that contains the changes the petitioners suggested back at the beginning of the controversy. By this action, the bill’s supporters seem to be saying, “OK, so we made a mistake when we said no to these ideas when they were first offered. The fact that we are willing to accept them now is what matters, and it makes the initiative unnecessary.”
It’s the petitioners’ turn to say no.
Utah’s Constitution specifically gives them the right to do what they are doing. They are fully abiding by the rules established by a previous state Legislature with respect to how it must be done. Now that they may be on the threshold of success, they should not be denied that possibility by means of legislation being proposed solely because the tide of the contest appears to have turned.
Since Utah’s Constitution makes it clear that this decision should be made by the voters, not the state Legislature, the petitioners are right to ask, “What are our opponents afraid of? If the required number of signatures is obtained by the April deadline, they will have the same six full months that we will have in which to take their case to the voters. If it is a persuasive one, the initiative will fail, as others have before it. We are willing to take that risk; why aren’t they?”
As he hinted that he might veto the pending bill, Gov. Gary Herbert gave the wisest counsel: “Let the process play out without any kind of games.”
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
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