SALT LAKE CITY — Backers of the Count My Vote initiative to change the state's unique system for nominating candidates stopped short Wednesday of saying they'd end the petition drive if the 2014 Legislature enacts reforms.
"We'll have to see what happens," LaVarr Webb, a political consultant who writes a column for the Deseret News, said during a panel discussion on the caucus and convention system. "I haven't made up my mind yet."
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said it's too soon to say whether lawmakers would agree to shift to a direct primary or at least require changes to the current system.
"We're not there yet," Jowers said.
He said reforms already adopted by the Utah GOP, including making it easier for members of the military and religious missionaries serving out of state to participate, aren't enough.
"Reform is for all of the people of Utah. It's not just for Republicans," Jowers said.
And even if all major political parties make changes, he said, they wouldn't be tested until after the mid-April deadline for gathering signatures.
Lawmakers could take action sooner, but Jowers said after the panel discussion that he believes the changes needed won't pass in the session set to begin Jan. 27.
"You're asking for an incredible amount of political courage from the Legislature because they have to go against the people who enjoy their status as delegates," Jowers said.
At least one lawmaker, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, is drafting caucus-related legislation. Bramble said his bill is already gaining support from both sides of the aisle.
Bramble said his bill would allow political parties to keep the caucus system if they adopt changes to increase participation. Parties that don't would have to switch to the direct primary called for by Count My Vote to choose candidates.
"I am anxiously engaged," Bramble said in an interview. "I didn't take this one to send a message. I did it to move the dial."
Webb and Jowers were responding to a question about Count My Vote's ultimate goal from Paul Mero, president of the Sutherland Institute, the conservative think thank that sponsored the 1 1/2-hour discussion.
Mero and Utah GOP Chairman James Evans defended the current system that allows candidates with enough support from party delegates to be chosen for the November ballot at a political convention rather than in a primary election.
Mero dismissed arguments that both women and young voters are underrepresented among the delegates, who are elected at neighborhood caucus meetings held on a specific evening.
"I'm not a quantity guy. It doesn't bug me that X percent don't participate," Mero said. "What bothers me are ignorant people, ignorant people making decisions on my behalf. My concerns are about the quality of the citizenship."
He repeatedly criticized young voters, saying he wouldn't care if the voting age was raised from 18 years old. Young voters, Mero said, "don't have a clue" and are too selfishly wrapped up in their own lives to attend a caucus meeting.
Jowers said the voting age was lowered because young men under 21 felt if they were old enough to be drafted to serve in Vietnam, they were old enough to vote.
"It is about quality, and our young people are quality," he said.
Evans said the caucus system does not work against women, pointing out the majority of Democratic lawmakers are female. He said he's not worried about Utah's low voter turnout since the state is dominated by one party — the GOP.
The Republican Party leader said Count My Vote would create barriers for candidates, including requiring GOP contenders to gather thousands of signatures in some races to qualify for a place on the primary ballot.
Money was also an issue raised by the opponents. Evans noted that Count My Vote has raised around nine times as much money as Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, the group formed to counter the initiative.
"That's one of the fundamental concerns of a primary system," Evans said, warning that candidates under a direct primary system will have to worry about whether they can raise enough money to reach voters.
Webb said the number of signatures required is not onerous. He also said the current system can be expensive for candidates, citing Sen. Orrin Hatch's $5 million campaign in 2012 to defeat fellow GOP challenger Dan Liljenquist.
"Big money talks," Webb said.
He said the current system results in many candidates winning the GOP nomination at a party convention. Because so few general election races are competitive, Webb said that leaves little incentive to vote.
To qualify for this November's ballot, Count My Vote needs to collect more than 100,000 voter signatures in 26 of Utah's 29 state Senate districts before April 15. The initiative would then need voter approval to take effect.
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