With the State Legislature having its own take on Count My Vote through S.B. 54, supporters of the initiative say legislators are trying to nullify a citizen petition, while opponents believe the caucus and convention system should stay the way it is.
The group Count My Vote is in the process of collecting the nearly 102,000 signatures it needs to get its initiative on November's ballot, which would mandate that parties select their candidates through a direct primary process, rather than the current caucus and convention system.
Count My Vote co-chairman Rich McKeown says the caucus and convention system is "subject to manipulation" and excludes many people from participating in the political process.
S.B. 54, sponsored by Sen. Curtis Bramble (R-Provo), is a proposed compromise bill between supporters and opponents of Count My Vote. It includes the full language of the Count My Vote initiative but would allow parties to opt out of direct primaries if they allow absentee voting at caucuses and conventions and require candidates to garner 65 percent of the delegate vote to win the party nomination without a primary.
"[S.B. 54] is not a solution but a circumvention of the initiative process," McKeown said. "There ought to be extreme caution when [the Legislature] is dealing with an issue that represents the way they are being elected."
McKeown sees a potential legal issue if S.B. 54 is signed into law and voters approve Count My Vote, should it get on the ballot in November. He maintained that about two-thirds of Utahns support the initiative and that the Legislature is seeking to change it because "they have more interest in being accountable to their delegates than they do to the voters of Utah."
A group called Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, however, is rallying against Count My Vote and has alleged that many of the group's paid signature gatherers have misled individuals about the petition. James Humphreys, the group's spokesperson, says the caucus and convention system is positive for democracy.
"Early in the caucus/convention system, people don't have to invest a lot of money, but they have to invest time. After convention, they have to raise money and show they have broad-based appeal," Humphreys said. "That balance is a beautiful thing, it guarantees that, no matter the elected office you are [running for], it's hard to get past everyone in the job interview process without all of your skeletons falling [out of your closet]."
During the period of Utah's history during 1937-47 when it had a direct primary system, Humphreys said the state had "the most corrupt administration in the Governor's Office." He added that getting to know delegates from all areas is crucial to ensuring that rural areas are not ignored.
In Summit County, Democratic Party Chair Glenn Wright said he has a "mixed opinion" on Count My Vote, though he did sign the petition. He said the caucus/convention system works well in small counties and has a "reasonably small barrier to entry" for candidates. He did point to its downsides, however.
"So many of the Republican contests are decided by extreme right-wing activists taking over the convention system," Wright said. "The downside of the caucus/convention system is that a very small set of people rule this state, and they don't want to see their power structure disrupted."
Summit County Republican Party Chair Tal Adair, meanwhile, is strongly opposed to Count My Vote.
"The Constitution enables all of the people to be as involved as they'd like to be in the political process," Adair said. "[Count My Vote] takes that away from the common Summit County person."
Adair said that the initiative would cause more attention to be paid to larger counties for national elections. He said the caucus/convention system is a "grassroots system" and allows people to start to get involved in the political process.
McKeown pointed out that 77 percent of Republican Party delegates are men and 63 percent are over the age of 45, excluding "the diversity of the population" from the political process.
"When you allow votes to be taken by small, elite groups of people, you subject yourself to the mischief they can take on," McKeown said.
Humphreys says Count My Vote would lead to more money being pumped into campaigns. He added that the caucus/convention process has a 25 to 33 percent turnover of delegates and that Sen. Mike Lee, who won a majority in the last primary, only received 43 percent of the delegate vote.
Romney supports initiative
In an e-mail sent on Feb. 19 by former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, Romney writes that he and his wife Ann are supporters of Count My Vote and that "caucus/convention systems exclude so many people."
Romney goes on to say, "I'm especially surprised legislators would interfere with a ballot measure defining how they get elected. It smacks of self-interest and feels very wrong."
Humphreys called Romney's support of Count My Vote "a distraction" and said that, in caucus states, Romney only won two of the four nominations in 2012, while he fared much better in primary election states with "mass marketing."
McKeown said it is significant that a high-profile national politician would align himself with "the vast majority of Utahns who believe that they ought to be able to have a vote for any candidate who is approved for the ballot."
S.B. 54 is set to go the House floor soon, although Gov. Gary Herbert has warned he may veto the legislation if it gets to his desk.