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Robert Bennett: Compromise will morph into Count my Vote win

Published: Monday, March 10 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Count My Vote workers drop off a petition with thousands of signatures to the Salt Lake county clerks office in Salt Lake City Tuesday, March 4, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News Archives

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The recent agreement between the state Legislature and Count My Vote (CMV) has been criticized by supporters on both sides. Those who defend the current caucus/convention system say the Legislature caved in to CMV pressure; those who worked to gather CMV signatures in order to eliminate that system complain that the group’s leaders abandoned the fight just as it was on the brink of success. Here’s my take.

Legislators who opposed CMV but believed it was likely to pass anyway decided to try to negate its effect through legislation. That backfired on them; the outcry that resulted was so immediate and strong that they realized that their position was deteriorating badly. That made them anxious for a deal.

On the CMV side, its leaders knew they weren’t yet home free. The 102,000 signatures they had collected were impressive and appeared to exceed the number needed to put the initiative on the ballot, but experience in other initiatives showed them that 20 to 30 percent of the signatures they had would be ruled invalid for some reason. They needed another 20,000 to 30,000 before April 15 to be safe. Also, they needed to have the signatures match predetermined levels in at least 26 of the state’s 29 Senate districts, which was still to be done. That made them willing to listen.

I don’t know who first approached whom, but “win-win” was declared because each side achieved its most important goal. The legislators kept the caucus/convention structure and CMV got an open primary. Since that means that there will now be two different ways whereby candidates can get their names on a primary ballot, the key question becomes, “Which one will they choose?”

In races for senator, congressman and governor, my answer is clearly, “CMV.” Do the math.

Under CMV, one can qualify for the primary by obtaining signatures, with the number required based on the size of the constituency involved. Doing that in the most expensive way possible in a statewide race, ignoring volunteers and using only paid gatherers, a candidate would have to pay something less than $75,000. By comparison, it cost me $750,000 to get through the convention in 1992, and I wasn’t the biggest spender. I’m sure Jon Huntsman Jr. spent well over that amount in 2004 and Orrin Hatch set the record for convention spending in 2012 at roughly $4 million. Using the CMV instead of the present convention method to get to the primary is so cost effective that I doubt that we will ever see a competitive statewide race in a convention again.

If I’m right, that means that campaign activity on behalf of potential governors, senators and congressmen will be absent from future caucuses, leaving them with the residual function of electing delegates to vote on candidates for the state Legislature. The number of people willing to go to a caucus for that purpose will likely go down and the delegates chosen there will likely be even less representative of the voting public than now. Faced with that situation, candidates for the state Legislature could — and I believe most would — shift to the CMV process themselves. The present system can’t compete with one that candidates see as cheaper and voters see as fairer.

So, if they are patient, the CMV signature gatherers will see that they did not waste their time after all. As a result of their efforts, the Legislature has passed a bill that has put Utah’s convention on a path taken by other states, where convention actions have become non-binding recommendations only. In a few years, today’s “win-win” will have morphed into tomorrow’s “CMV win.”

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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