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Count My Vote compromise shows initiatives still have a pulse in Utah

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 11:53 p.m. MDT

Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt speaks with reporters near the steps of the Utah State Capitol in this Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013 file photo, in Salt Lake City. A group of prominent Republicans led by Leavitt have taken a key step on their campaign to revolutionize the way Utah elects candidates for political office. The Count My Vote group filed an application for an initiative petition Wednesday which would do away with the current caucus and convention nominating system. The petition would instead have candidates compete in a direct primary election. Leavitt says the current system is antiquated and keeps many people out of the process because they're unable to attend meetings to help choose their political party's nominees.  (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press) Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt speaks with reporters near the steps of the Utah State Capitol in this Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013 file photo, in Salt Lake City. A group of prominent Republicans led by Leavitt have taken a key step on their campaign to revolutionize the way Utah elects candidates for political office. The Count My Vote group filed an application for an initiative petition Wednesday which would do away with the current caucus and convention nominating system. The petition would instead have candidates compete in a direct primary election. Leavitt says the current system is antiquated and keeps many people out of the process because they're unable to attend meetings to help choose their political party's nominees. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

After 114 tumultuous years, the initiative process still has a heartbeat in Utah.

Sherman S. Smith would be proud.

Of course, he probably couldn’t get elected in Utah today; not even in Ogden, where people sent him to the Legislature at the turn of the 20th century. He also might not like how the Count My Vote drive seems to have ended in a compromise. But I’m guessing he would be happy with how people forced power to bow down.

As for the folks who shared power with him in the Utah Legislature of 1900, they probably would send us all a message: See, this is what happens when you let a populist in.

It’s hard to find many people who are satisfied with the caucus-system compromise wending its way through the Legislature. On one side are people who signed the petitions, some of whom wonder how leaders of the petition drive can negotiate a compromise on their behalf.

On the other side are the zealous keepers of Utah’s unique caucus system, by which people who are able to show up at neighborhood meetings on a particular night select delegates who then choose party candidates. Among other things, they claim the compromise is unconstitutional because it forces political parties to change how they operate.

But none of these are likely to matter much because of the power of the people, as expressed by their signatures on petitions and polls that show about 65 percent support for changing the nominating process.

This is pretty much how people-power has worked in Utah since 1900, when Smith served in the Legislature. From the many sources I’ve read, he wasn’t too popular with many of his colleagues. Still, he was able to get a measure to amend the Utah Constitution, allowing initiatives and referenda, on ballots in 1900. Voters overwhelmingly approved. That made Utah only the second state to grant such power to the people, and only two years after South Dakota became the first.

Even after the vote, Henry W. Lawrence, a socialist (an even rarer breed in Utah then and now), predicted the fight had just begun. He was right.

It took 16 years for the Legislature to pass a law defining how the initiative process was to work. And that law virtually guaranteed no one ever would get an initiative on the ballot.

Anyone signing a petition had to do so in the office of, and the presence of, someone authorized to administer oaths. Forget about looking for a guy with a clipboard outside your local grocery store. Make an appointment, have a seat and wait for the judge to see you.

Forty-five years and some Supreme Court decisions later, a petition finally made its way onto the ballot. But the tug-of-war between the people and lawmakers continued. It has never abated.

Today, 24 states and the District of Columbia allow initiatives and referenda. In California, ballots are so common they sometimes contradict each other. In Utah, however, it’s so hard to get on the ballot that anyone hoping to succeed has to hire professional signature gatherers, as the Count My Vote people did.

Today, many people think of the initiative process as one of those all-American concepts — at least if they live in a state that allows them. I have mixed feelings.

When a lawmaker proposes a bill, representatives can amend it to reflect the interests of their constituents, or in the name of plain old common sense. They can argue points and respond to critics. All that friction chips away a bill’s rougher edges.

Initiatives, however, reflect the will of an interest group and can’t be amended once petitions are circulating. Once passed, they tend to take on a sacrosanct air because lawmakers don’t want to mess with the will of the people.

But it’s hard to deny that when the people’s representatives are more responsive to special interests than to the public, or when they are hamstrung by their own power base (every incumbent will have to face his or her caucus delegates this year), the people need a way to apply pressure.

I probably wouldn’t have voted for Sherman S. Smith had I been alive back then. But it’s probably a good thing he did what he did. It’s also good that Utahns keep grappling with how to keep their elected representatives in check.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.

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