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'Win-win solution' keeps Utah caucus system, adds direct primary

Published: Sunday, March 2 2014 10:00 p.m. MST

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House and Senate believe they have come up with a "win-win solution" to expand access to Utah's primary elections.

Amendments to Senate Bill 54 were officially announced in a press conference Sunday at the Utah State Capitol, with members of the Utah Legislature and the leadership behind the Count My Vote ballot initiative attending.

In what was called "historic legislation," by Count My Vote executive chairman Rick McKeown, the bill seeks to expand options to voters while retaining Utah's caucus-convention system.

The bill creates a direct primary election, opening the door for candidates to use caucus-conventions or signature gathering as a means of getting on the ballot and allowing an estimated 665,000 unaffiliated voters to participate in primary elections.

If the bill passes, Count My Vote will drop its petition, which organizers said has gathered 100,000 of the 102,000 signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot.

"I suspect that not everybody will still be joyful about it. We feel like it's been a great compromise. In fact, I think compromise is understated. We're confident we've come up with a win-win solution to engage citizens," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said at the end of the new conference.

According to McKeown, the bill will “significantly modernize the Utah election system.”

Discussions for reform began in October and revolved around increasing voter turnout, which Count My Vote co-chair Norma Matheson described as being “abysmal.”

McKeown is convinced that the bill will benefit all Utahns.

“When you see the legislation when you get acquainted with what it does, you are going to see that this is an elegant solution to this that significantly enhances the capacity of participation by all Utah voters,” McKeown said.

Under Utah’s current system of nominating candidates, delegates are chosen in neighborhood caucuses, who in most cases select their party nominees at the party convention. Count My Vote backers say this excludes people who cannot attend the meetings, does not represent women well and generates candidates who do not represent mainstream interests.

The compromise “accomplishes the mission of Count My Vote,” which is why the initiative’s leadership decided to embrace it, according to former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, Count My Vote co-chair. Three parts of the bill helped convince the initiative’s leader to support it, Leavitt said.

First, it creates a direct primary that would increase voter participation “without the expense of a general election campaign in the fall,” he said. Next, it includes unaffiliated voters in primary elections, which was not a part of original Count My Vote goals. Finally, SB 54 neutralizes the impact the intiative would have had, so Count My Vote supported the bill for the good of Utah voters.

The bill has received pushback from both sides, Niederhauser said. Because of this, the bill's creators tried to preserve the caucus-convention while creating a new path to get on the ballot.

James Evans, Utah Republican Party Charmain, was at the conference Sunday and issued a statement saying the party was pleased the Legislature found a way to preserve the current caucus-convention system, which “gives an average citizen a realistic chance of being elected to public office without having to expend great sums of money."

“While we may not fully agree on the details of the compromise, we are supportive of our Republican legislators because we believe they are acting in good faith, making the best of a difficult situation, and doing what they believe is in the best interest of Utah,” he said.

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