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Ashley Stilson, Deseret News
Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, speaks to community members at the Whitmore Library in Cottonwood Heights on Friday, Oct. 27, 2017. Dozens of community members asked questions and voiced their opinions on the Count My Vote initiative at public hearings held statewide on Friday.

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Dozens of community members asked questions and voiced their opinions on the Count My Vote initiative at public hearings that began Friday.

"Utah is a community, civic-minded state, but yet over the past several decades, we've had declining participation in our elections. That's what really motivated Count My Vote to organize years ago," Taylor Morgan, executive director of the group behind the drive, said at a hearing in Cottonwood Heights.

Hosting the seven public hearings is one of the last steps before the initiative can be circulated for voter signatures to try to qualify for the 2018 general election ballot.

The Count My Vote initiative, if approved by voters, would replace the current hybrid election system with a direct primary election.

Under the initiative, all candidates who garner signatures of at least 1 percent of the registered voters in their represented areas would go to a primary election. If no candidate wins at least 35 percent of the vote, there would be a runoff election.

Only registered party voters would be allowed to sign for a candidate in their specific party, although voters could nominate multiple party candidates seeking nomination for the same office.

"There's no harm in letting the people vote," said Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, who attended the hearing in his region. "I think the voters in Utah need a voice. We, as a Legislature, should not be afraid to hear that voice, then take that voice to heart and go forward."

Count My Vote backers originally circulated the initiative prior to the 2014 ballot. But advocates instead reached a compromise with state lawmakers, who created an alternate path to the ballot known as SB54.

The deal allows candidates to bypass the political parties' traditional caucus and convention nominating process.

Instead of vying for party delegate support or a large margin to reach the general election, candidates have been able to gather voter signatures to ensure a place on the primary ballot.

The compromise was challenged in court by the Utah Republican Party. After losing in federal district court, the part appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which recently heard arguments in the case.

"The voters should ultimately weigh-in and make the decision on how they choose their candidates. That's really the emphasis behind the new initiative, is to put this question before Utah voters," Morgan said.

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

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Other initiatives include 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.

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.

Meetings scheduled for today are: 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; and 8 p.m., Southern Utah University, Sharwan Smith Student Center, 351 W. University Blvd., Cedar City.