Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
Delegate Josh Melessa, of Washington County, voices his opinion during the Utah Republican Party\'s annual organizing convention Saturday, May 18, 2013, in Sandy, Utah. About 2500 Republicans delegate gathered in Sandy for the Utah Republican Party's annual organizing convention.
We all believe it's too important not to proceed. —Rich McKeown

SALT LAKE CITY — Plans are moving forward to launch an initiative petition drive to let voters decide if candidates should be able to bypass the caucus and convention system used by political parties.

"We all believe it's too important not to proceed," Rich McKeown, the chairman of Count My Vote, said Friday after a meeting of the group of prominent Republicans behind the initiative.

He said the group, which includes former Gov. Mike Leavitt and political consultant LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News, has been encouraged by support shown for their goal of increasing political participation.

But no date has been set to start gathering the more than 101,000 voter signatures from at least 26 of Utah's 29 counties in the coming months that will be needed in order to qualify for a spot on the November 2014 ballot.

"There are still things we have to accomplish," McKeown said. Fundraising is already underway by the group to cover the cost of the initiative, expected to carry a price tag of more than $1 million.

McKeown said the initiative process is the "last hope you have for changing things," and that Count My Vote has already approached legislators as well as the political parties as an alternative.

Last weekend, delegates to the Utah GOP state convention voted down reforms from the group that had the support of party leaders, including raising the vote threshold needed by a candidate to avoid a primary race.

"The GOP made a good faith effort to put this before the delegates, but the delegates resoundingly voted down the opportunity," McKeown said. Lawmakers, he said, feared retribution from delegates if they attempted to alter how candidates are chosen.

"There's a core of people who really understand that this is a place where you can gain some control, and have some control over the party mechanism," McKeown said — something they are intent on maintaining.

Delegates opposed to the changes sought by Count My Vote, however, said they felt they were being blackmailed by the group and doubted a pledge that the initiative would not go forward if the reforms were approved at the party convention.

A flier opposing the reforms that was circulated at the convention said the Republicans behind Count My Vote want more primary elections because they favor the political elite. "It's time to draw a line in the sand," the flier stated.

A video posted on YouTube by the Iron County GOP supporting the current caucus and convention system described delegates as "respected neighborhood leaders" while portraying opponents of the system as sitting on the stacks of money.

Primary elections force candidates to "raise large sums of money making them accountable to lobbyists instead of you" and rely on expensive political consultants and advertising, the video states.

New Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said Friday the most effective way to involve more Republicans in the political process is to increase the turnout at the caucus meetings where delegates are chosen.

He said the concept of an alternative route to the primary ballot "is a bit premature."

"The goal is the same, what we're going to negotiate, or what I would like to engage them on, is the process of doing that," Evans said. "It's a question of trust. Can they trust that we will consistently have high caucus attendance?"

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While caucus attendance has been low in the past, there was a significant increase at both the Republican and Democratic caucus meetings last year after the LDS Church issued a statement encouraging participation.

Even though delegates declined to support resolutions directing the party to study proxy voting and other ways of increasing caucus participation, Evans has said that effort will go forward.

"The fundamental way that we can improve upon making sure we have a more representative delegate pool is to make sure we have consistently high caucus attendance," he said. "That resolves all of the concerns."

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