SALT LAKE CITY — Backers of an initiative to change how Utah chooses candidates for political office plan to launch a multimedia advertising campaign as state lawmakers position themselves to counter the effort with legislation.
The Utah Senate signaled its support Thursday for a bill that supporters of a petition to move the state to direct primary elections say thwarts the will of people.
SB54, which would allow political parties to avoid the direct primaries called for in the Count My Vote initiative by making some changes to Utah's unique caucus and convention system for nominating candidates, passed 26-2 in an initial vote after an hourlong debate. The bill could be up for a final vote as early as Friday.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, called his bill a "principled compromise" to reform the candidate nomination process and boost voter participation.
"No one gets everything they want in this bill. I guess you could say there's something in this bill for everyone to either complain about or conversely, there's something in this bill that everyone, every citizen that's engaged in this dialogue, can say there's a win for them,' he said.
But Count My Vote supporters Rich McKeown, former Utah first lady Norma Matheson and Salt Lake Chamber president Lane Beattie urged the Senate to vote against the bill in a news conference in the Capitol rotunda Thursday morning.
McKeown, the group's executive chairman, called the bill a "clever maneuver" and said lawmakers are showing "shocking disregard" for thousands of people who signed the Count My Vote petition.
"They've circumvented the process. They've put themselves in a position to say, 'We know better,'" he said. "This a direct conflict of interest with them. They are tampering. As the governor said yesterday, they're gaming the system on the very way that they're being elected, that citizens are trying to change."
Gov. Gary Herbert also said Wednesday that he would might veto SB54 if it passes.
McKeown said the group is close to gathering the more than 100,000 signatures needed to put its measure before voters in November.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, took issue with those who argue that it's unfair for the Legislature to get involved.
"I just think that's really silly. It shows a misunderstanding of how the process works," he said.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he's protective of residents' right to run an initiative petition "but they are no more important than we are up here."
Sens. Jim Dabakis and Pat Jones, both Democrats, were the only dissenting votes.
Jones said she oppose the bill because hundreds of people have been working on what the Legislature has already made an extremely difficult citizen initiative process and thousands have signed the petition.
The bill will likely reach the House next week. House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she doesn't think it's out of line for the Legislature to look at what the bill identifies as flaws in the initiative.
"I think what you're seeing is that the Legislature is recognizing that the people want us to address this issue," she said.
McKeon said the Legislature basically ignored calls to reform the caucus and convention system going back to 2009, and is stepping in at the last minute without regard for what Uthans want.
He said stopped short of saying the group would file a lawsuit if SB54 passes, but he said there would be "legal issues involved as we reconcile this" and that it would be an obstacle the initiative would have to overcome.
Count My Vote intends to take its message to the airwaves, though McKeown was coy about how it would be done and how much it would cost.
"I think you'll see us activate in remarkable ways over the next few days in the most economical ways that we can, but in the most expansive ways that we can," he said. "There are significant parts of the business community that support Count My Vote. There are members of that community who have access to media who are prepared to step up and let us be involved there."
Meantime, a group called Protect Our Neighborhood Elections says it will file a complaint with the lieutenant governor's office Friday calling for many, if not all signatures on the Count My Vote petition to be voided.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche
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