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Lawmakers, Count My Vote talking deal that would end initiative petition

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27 2014 9:01 p.m. MST

The Count My Vote ballot initiative to bring direct primary elections to Utah would be scrapped under a deal quietly being worked out behind the scenes in the Legislature. (Matt Gade, Deseret News) The Count My Vote ballot initiative to bring direct primary elections to Utah would be scrapped under a deal quietly being worked out behind the scenes in the Legislature. (Matt Gade, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The Count My Vote ballot initiative to bring direct primary elections to Utah would be scrapped under a deal quietly being worked out behind the scenes in the Legislature.

State lawmakers and supporters of the initiative have made substantial progress on an agreement in talks the past few days, according to a source close to the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The deal would keep Utah's unique caucus and convention system for nominating candidates for public office but provide a path for candidates to get on the primary election ballot outside the convention, the source said.

Majority Republicans in the House and Senate talked about the proposal in closed caucuses during the week, according to the source.

Count My Vote wants voters to decide whether to dump the current nominating process for direct primary elections. Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, is countering the initiative with a bill that would allow political parties to avoid the direct primary if they make some changes to the system.

Bramble's controversial bill, SB54, would be the vehicle for creating what would be a hybrid system for choosing candidates, much like Count My Vote initially proposed before calling for a direct primary.

The Senate passed the bill last week, and it's expected to be heard in the House Government Operations Committee on Monday. It would have to be amended to reflect the deal.

The source said Count My Vote would only drop its petition, which the group said had more than 100,000 signatures as of Wednesday, if Gov. Gary Herbert signs a bill that includes the provisions it wants.

Herbert has already said he may veto SB54 because it interferes with the political parties, as well as the initiative process.

Neither Bramble nor Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, the House sponsor of the bill, would confirm the negotiations. McCay would only say lawmakers are meeting with everyone who's interested in the issue.

Kirk Jowers, a Count My Vote founder and board member, wouldn't discuss details but said "supporters of Count My Vote have negotiated with the Legislature and party leaders for the past several years, and I'm more hopeful now than I've ever been."

Count My Vote has insisted that any agreement include an option for candidates to get on the primary election ballot outside the convention nomination process, the source said.

One of the sticking points in the talks is the percentage or number of signatures a candidate would have to collect to get on the primary election ballot. Lawmakers' figures were much higher than Count My Vote supporters were willing to agree to, according to the source.

The initiative would change state law to give a spot on the primary ballot to all candidates who gather the signatures of at least 2 percent of the voters in their party living in the district they're seeking to represent.

Initially, the initiative backers talked about keeping the current nominating system in place while providing an alternative means for candidates to win a spot on a primary ballot. But talks between Count My Vote supporters, political parties and lawmakers over making that happen didn't go anywhere.

Count My Vote launched an initiative petition last year to replace the current system with a direct primary. It needs 102,000 signatures by April 15 to get on the November ballot.

Even while legislators and petition backers are talking privately about a deal, they've sniped at each other publicly.

Rick McKeown, Count My Vote executive chairman, called Bramble's bill a "clever maneuver" to circumvent the will of Utahns. Bramble sees it as a "principled compromise" to reform the candidate nomination process and boost voter participation.

McKeown also said this week there would be a court fight if SB54 is passed and the initiative both qualifies for a spot on the November ballot and is approved by voters.

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