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In our opinion: Democracy and political participation

Published: Sunday, March 16 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Rich McKeown, Count My Vote's executive chairman, left, and Utah's Majority Leader Brad Dee speak following a news conference a announcing a deal between state legislators and the Count My Vote group over Utah's caucus-convention system on Sunday, March 2, 2014, in Salt Lake City.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

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Nearly six months ago on Capitol Hill, a group of political leaders and former office-holders in Utah announced the launch of their initiative drive, “Count My Vote.” Their success in gathering nearly all the 102,000 signatures necessary to qualify for the November 2014 ballot demonstrated a pent-up demand among voters for changing some aspects of Utah’s unique electoral system.

Speaking on Capitol Hill in September, former Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt joined former Republican Gov. Norm Bangerter and former Utah first lady Norma Matheson, wife of the late Democratic Gov. Scott Matheson, to push for a dramatic change. They would have eliminated Utah’s system of neighborhood caucuses and party conventions in favor of direct primary elections by the political parties.

“We're confident people want a change. We're the only state where a handful of people, just a handful of people, routinely choose [candidates]," Leavitt said at the time. "This is a discussion not about political parties. It's a discussion about how the people want to choose the candidates for public office. That's the reason we had to use an initiative to get this done."

Last Monday, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill, SB54, described by some as the compromise that killed Count My Vote. Indeed, as a result of the measure’s passage by the Legislature and its enactment into law, the organizers of initiative suspended signature-gathering. The effort to ensure a direct primary met with success by a vote of the Legislature, if not through their intended citizen initiative.

But this victory is not necessarily the one that Count My Vote supporters had envisioned.

Instead of killing the caucuses, the compromise breathes new life into them. This week, the Democratic Party will caucus on Tuesday, March 18, while the Republican Party will do the same on Thursday, March 20. At these neighborhood gatherings, grass-roots members of these parties will elect delegates to their respective parties’ political conventions. Those conventions will continue to nominate candidates for state and federal election.

But beginning with the 2016 political cycles – and this is a key difference – candidates eliminated at the party convention level will have another chance to get on their primary ballot if they follow filing deadline rules.

Currently, only if no candidate garners more than 60 percent of delegates is there a primary election permitting party members to vote among the top two candidates. In 2016, by contrast, candidates will enjoy an alternate path to the primary, by securing significant signatures to demonstrate grass-roots support for their candidacy. Equally important, the primary elections of both major political parties will now – under the agreement – be open to non-affiliated voters. It is likely that independent voters will moderate more extreme elements of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

The reactions to the compromise SB54 legislation – which this newspaper supported – have ranged from eager acceptance to concerned wariness. Nothwithstanding the preservation of caucuses and conventions, some commentators believe that they will effectively become non-binding. Other commentators believe that the change will further diminish the influence of the Democratic Party and create two clear factions in the Republican Party: a “caucus faction” and a “signature-gathering faction.”

While both of those futures are possible, neither is a pre-ordained conclusion.

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