A "compromise bill" between Count My Vote initiative supporters and caucus/convention system defenders has been bounced around the State Legislature. After advancing through committee Monday, it will make its way to the House floor soon.
S.B. 54 (second substitute), sponsored by Sen. Curtis Bramble (R-Provo), was heard in the House Government Operations Committee on Monday, where it was passed out with a unanimous favorable recommendation, despite many committee members' beliefs that the bill has serious constitutional issues.
The bill includes the full language of the Count My Vote initiative, which is in the process of gathering more than 102,000 signatures needed to get on the November ballot. The initiative, if approved by voters, would mandate that parties select their candidates through a direct primary process, essentially doing away with the current caucus and convention system.
S.B. 54 would leave the caucus system intact, but would allow candidates of a political party to have a place on the party primary ballot by gathering signatures. Another key aspect of the bill is that a direct primary would be the default for a political party unless it becomes a "qualified political party" by including three provisions in its nominating process:
Allow an opportunity for delegates to vote absentee at the party convention, or have an alternate delegate process
Allow unaffiliated voters to cast votes in the party's primary election
Allow a candidate to get on primary ballot by obtaining signatures
Should the bill pass, Bramble said he was told by Count My Vote that they would not pursue the initiative. Candidates pursuing party nomination through signature gathering would be able to begin gathering signatures no earlier than Jan. 1 of that election year. Signatures could then be gathered up until two weeks before that party's convention.
To get on a party's direct primary ballot, a candidate would have to obtain signatures from two percent of that party's registered voters. In a statewide race, that means a Republican would have to get over 13,000 signatures, while a Democrat would need around 3,000.
Rep. Ken Ivory (R-West Jordan) was one of several committee members who said S.B. 54 could be unconstitutional. He said that a Supreme Court decision prohibits government from meddling with a party's internal affairs except for in the case of a "compelling state interest," such as issues of race.
Rep. Michael Noel (R-Kanab) worried that the system S.B. 54 would create would facilitate greater mass-marketed campaigns.
"To me, the scariest voter is the uninformed or low-information voter," Noel said. "That's what we turn this system over to."
Rep. Kraig Powell (R-Heber City) said that the Utah Republican Party's State Central Committee bears the brunt of the blame for this situation, as their members were warned months ago that issues would arise if they failed to make changes to the caucus and convention system that were called for.
Powell said that of the three parts of the Republican Party - the organization, the elected officials and the electorate - the electorate and the elected officials are both calling for change to the caucus system, but are being met with resistance from the party organization.
Former Utah representative Chris Harris spoke during public comment, saying that S.B. 54 is a compromise between Count My Vote and the State Legislature, not between the parties. He said the bill would take away the "fundamental right of free association."
" signing this, you believe it is government's role to interfere in party business," Harris said.
Blake Cozzens, chairman of the Iron County Republican Party, said the caucus system allows any citizen to be involved in the political process, including those who are young or who lack money.
"Creating an alternate path to the ballot allows a rich candidate to skip the grassroots system," Cozzens said.
Rep. Janice Fisher (D-West Valley City) and Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck (D-Salt Lake City) both said they are in support of the bill and that the majority of citizens are calling for a change to the caucus/convention system.
Bramble stressed to committee members that, if S.B. 54 is not passed and Count My Vote is approved by voters, the parties would be "totally [taken] out of the process" and there would be automatic direct primaries.
The House is expected to take up S.B. 54 some time this week. To stream House floor time, visit le.utah.gov.