SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House and Senate believe they have come up with a "win-win solution" to expand access to Utah's primary elections.
Amendments to Senate Bill 54 were officially announced in a press conference Sunday at the Utah State Capitol, with members of the Utah Legislature and the leadership behind the Count My Vote ballot initiative attending.
In what was called "historic legislation," by Count My Vote executive chairman Rick McKeown, the bill seeks to expand options to voters while retaining Utah's caucus-convention system.
The bill creates a direct primary election, opening the door for candidates to use caucus-conventions or signature gathering as a means of getting on the ballot and allowing an estimated 665,000 unaffiliated voters to participate in primary elections.
If the bill passes, Count My Vote will drop its petition, which organizers said has gathered 100,000 of the 102,000 signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot.
"I suspect that not everybody will still be joyful about it. We feel like it's been a great compromise. In fact, I think compromise is understated. We're confident we've come up with a win-win solution to engage citizens," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said at the end of the new conference.
According to McKeown, the bill will “significantly modernize the Utah election system.”
Discussions for reform began in October and revolved around increasing voter turnout, which Count My Vote co-chair Norma Matheson described as being “abysmal.”
McKeown is convinced that the bill will benefit all Utahns.
“When you see the legislation when you get acquainted with what it does, you are going to see that this is an elegant solution to this that significantly enhances the capacity of participation by all Utah voters,” McKeown said.
Under Utah’s current system of nominating candidates, delegates are chosen in neighborhood caucuses, who in most cases select their party nominees at the party convention. Count My Vote backers say this excludes people who cannot attend the meetings, does not represent women well and generates candidates who do not represent mainstream interests.
The compromise “accomplishes the mission of Count My Vote,” which is why the initiative’s leadership decided to embrace it, according to former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, Count My Vote co-chair. Three parts of the bill helped convince the initiative’s leader to support it, Leavitt said.
First, it creates a direct primary that would increase voter participation “without the expense of a general election campaign in the fall,” he said. Next, it includes unaffiliated voters in primary elections, which was not a part of original Count My Vote goals. Finally, SB 54 neutralizes the impact the intiative would have had, so Count My Vote supported the bill for the good of Utah voters.
The bill has received pushback from both sides, Niederhauser said. Because of this, the bill's creators tried to preserve the caucus-convention while creating a new path to get on the ballot.
James Evans, Utah Republican Party Charmain, was at the conference Sunday and issued a statement saying the party was pleased the Legislature found a way to preserve the current caucus-convention system, which “gives an average citizen a realistic chance of being elected to public office without having to expend great sums of money."
“While we may not fully agree on the details of the compromise, we are supportive of our Republican legislators because we believe they are acting in good faith, making the best of a difficult situation, and doing what they believe is in the best interest of Utah,” he said.
Protect Our Neighborhood Elections opposed the bill, saying it is unconstitutional for the Legislature to meddle in the candidate selection process and would make the "grassroots" caucus-convention system "pointless," according to Blake Cozzens, state coordinator for Protect Our Neighborhood Elections.
Only those with money for advertisements and campaigning would be able to generate the amount of signatures needed for placement on the ballot, Cozzens said. The number of signatures ranges from 1,000 to run for the Utah House of Representatives to 28,000 for any statewide office.
The group also claims it has audio, video and photographic evidence that Count My Vote's petition workers lied to voters about what petition they were signing, telling people the signatures were to keep schools from taking lunches away from students.
The group is investigating legal options, Cozzens said.
Gov. Gary Herbert, who did not attend the press conference, said he is mindful of all parties involved in the debate.
"Gov. Herbert has expressed his support for the caucus convention system as well as his concern with any efforts to interfere with a citizens initiative. He encouraged both sides to work toward a compromise and he is pleased to see they have done just that. As is always the case, he will review a bill once it passes," Marty Carpenter, director of communication for Herbert, said.
The bill has passed in the Senate and will be heard in a committee meeting before the House Government Operations Committee at 8 a.m. Monday, in House Building room 20.
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