Jeffrey Allred, Deseret News
FILE - Count My Vote executive director Taylor Morgan and others  drop off a petition with thousands of signatures to the Salt Lake county clerks office in Salt Lake City  Tuesday, March 4, 2014.

SALT LAKE CITY — Backers of the recently revived Count My Vote initiative to replace what's now a hybrid system for nominating political candidates with a direct primary election are holding public hearings this week around the state.

The seven hearings set for Friday and Saturday are one of the final steps before petitions can be circulated for voter signatures around the state in an effort to qualify the initiative for the 2018 general election ballot.

It's an opportunity for Count My Vote to start detailing the difference between a direct primary election and the current system that allows both political parties and voters to nominate candidates.

The initiative would send to a primary election all candidates who gather signatures of at least 1 percent of the registered voters in the area they want to represent and require a run-off election if no candidate wins at least 35 percent of the vote.

The current system is a result of a 2014 compromise lawmakers reached with Count My Vote to halt the initiative then. Known as SB54, the deal allowed candidates to bypass the political parties' traditional caucus and convention nominating process.

Instead of competing for party delegate support to advance to a primary, or with a big enough margin to the general election, candidates have been able since last year to gather voter signatures to guarantee a place on the primary ballot.

The Utah Republican Party has challenged the compromise in court, appealing its loss in federal district court to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which recently heard arguments in the case.

And some GOP lawmakers have also sought to undo SB54.

"Every single year, it's been under attack," Count My Vote Executive Director Taylor Morgan said.

At the same time, Morgan said, voters have made it clear they want primary elections by choosing candidates who failed to win over delegates.

Those include Gov. Gary Herbert, who trailed behind GOP challenger and Overstock.com Chairman Jonathon Johnson at last year's party convention but scored a big victory in the primary, and Provo Mayor John Curtis.

Curtis became the GOP nominee in the special 3rd Congressional District election this summer after losing at the party convention, then defeating delegate pick Chris Herrod, a former state lawmaker, and Alpine lawyer Tanner Ainge in the primary.

"Let's put this where it belongs," Morgan said. "We have debated this for years. SB54 was good for a lot of reasons, but at the end of the day, it's high time Utah voters had the final say on how they choose their candidates."

But Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson, who hopes to halt the party's lawsuit over SB54, said a recent online poll conducted by the party showed a preference for the current hybrid system over a direct primary.

Anderson, who declined to share details of the poll, said he still believes SB54 can be saved if the party gives up the legal battle. That will likely come up during Saturday's meeting of the GOP's governing State Central Committee.

"We can fix it and make it better," Anderson said of the current dual-track nominating system. "I think the issue is more options. People like more options. They want to be able to do both. Why restrict it to just one option?"

Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said answering that question is going to be key to the success of the Count My Vote initiative.

"The messaging for the Count My Vote initiative is the most important part, because Utahns are weary of things that limit options," Perry said. "It has to be a message of choice."

He said voters will need to believe that shifting to a single path to the ballot "doesn't mean your options are limited." Instead, Perry said, the initiative should be seen as attracting more candidates, so "the entrance narrows, but the options expand."

This week's public hearings on Count My Vote "are hugely important," Perry said. Backers have to not only explain the initiative, he said, but also "make sure it doesn't get lost" among the other initiatives going forward.

Count My Vote is one of five initiatives that have filed with the state elections office.

To qualify for the 2018 general election ballot, supporters of each must collect more than 113,000 voter signatures in at least 26 of Utah's 29 state Senate districts by April 15, 2018.

Initiative petitions are already being circulated for the Our Schools Now tax increase for education; the Better Boundaries proposal for an independent redistricting commission; and the Medical Cannabis Act to legalize medical marijuana. Another initiative would expand Medicaid coverage.

"It's getting pretty late in the process," said Justin Lee, the state's deputy elections director. "The winter months are definitely not the easiest time to be out there gathering signatures."


Count My Vote hearings

Friday

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10 a.m. — Logan Library, 255 N. Main, Logan.

2 p.m. — Whitmore Library, 2197 E. Ft. Union Blvd., Cottonwood Heights

4 p.m. — Utah Valley University, Sorensen Student Center, Orem.

8 p.m. — Snow College, Noyes Building, 150 College Ave., Ephraim.

Saturday

10 a.m. — Uintah County Library, 204 E. 100 North, Vernal.

3 p.m. — Utah State University Eastern, Jennifer Leavitt Student Center, 414 N. 300 East, Price.

8 p.m. — Southern Utah University, Sharwan Smith Student Center, 351 W. University Blvd., Cedar City.