SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Shooting Sports Council urged its members Monday to oppose Count My Vote, an initiative that would replace Utah's unique system for choosing political party nominees with a direct primary.
"This is probably the biggest threat facing Utah gun owners in the long term," warned an "Action Alert" email from the council. "Doing away with Utah's caucus system will put selection of Utah political candidates in the hands of big money interests and hurt gun owners."
Members were told not to sign the petition currently being circulated by Count My Vote and to spread the word that the initiative "lets rich elites and slick media advertising pick bad candidates" who won't have to face tough questions.
"Could a candidate be elected that was anti-gun in Utah under the primary system? Absolutely they could be," said Clark Aposhian, chairman of the council dedicated to protecting Second Amendment rights.
But Taylor Morgan, an executive director of Count My Vote, said the initiative is about allowing all voters to participate in candidate selection, "not any one issue, political party or candidate."
Morgan took exception to the council's description of the initiative as a threat.
"I don't see how more Utah voters participating in elections is a threat to anyone," he said. "More Utah voters participating in elections is a positive thing for our state."
Aposhian said if the initiative succeeds and Utah switches to a direct primary, a "disproportionate amount of money and effort" would be spent in political races by special interest groups that oppose gun rights.
"It dilutes the local representation, from the very basic core grass roots," he said. "Regardless sometimes of what their views are, (political candidates) tend to be influenced by outside money to a much greater extent."
What Aposhian called "the more establishment candidates" who would emerge in a primary system "tend to be very flippant on gun rights. It does not tend to be a priority for them."
He said the council is planning to hold training sessions hourly at gun shows beginning early next year to explain how the state's caucus and convention system works.
A video detailing the nomination system, which allows candidates with enough support from delegates selected at neighborhood caucuses to avoid a primary election, is also in the works, Aposhian said.
Count My Vote, backed by a group of prominent Republicans, including former Gov. Mike Leavitt, as well as some Democrats, needs to gather more than 100,000 signatures by April to qualify for the November 2014 ballot.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said it's not surprising that the shooting sports council would oppose the change to a direct primary.
"The reality is that the shooting sports council, in particular as a lobbying group, has been successful," Burbank said. "Whatever risk there might be is not to their special interest."
Utah voters, especially those in the state's dominant Republican Party, support gun rights, Burbank said, something that's not going to change under a direct primary system.
But, he said, the council as well as other special interest groups would no longer be able to influence elections by ensuring the delegates elected at caucus meetings will support pro-gun rights candidates.
"It's a system they know and a system they like. I wouldn't expect them to want to see changes," Burbank said. "It's not really costing them anything to make sure their positions are represented at those mass meetings."
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