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Backers of initiative to alter political nomination system to poll Utahns

SALT LAKE CITY — The group of prominent Republicans behind a proposed initiative petition drive to change how political parties nominate candidates now are planning to poll Utahns to see if they want to scrape the current system entirely.

Meanwhile, the Utah Republican Party itself is considering launching an alternative to the Count My Vote initiative that would protect and strengthen the current caucus and convention system for selecting candidates.

"The process we have has benefited Utah greatly," new Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said. "Our initiative petition will simply make the nomination process even more robust and more inclusive."

The party's initiative, dubbed "My Vote Counts," must be approved by the state GOP central committee, Evans said. He declined to provide specifics but said it will be presented to party leaders at their June 22 meeting.

The options Count My Vote is looking at are replacing the current system with either open party primaries or a so-called California-style primary that allows the top vote-getters in a primary to advance to the general election regardless of party.

The Count My Vote group previously talked publicly only about using the initiative process to allow candidates with enough voter support to get on a primary ballot without going through the caucus and convention system.

But Rich McKeown, president of the group that also includes former Gov. Mike Leavitt and political consultant LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News, said the group decided Tuesday to see which of the three options has the most appeal.

"Right now, as we look at the fact we need to move forward and we need to create a launch later this summer, we need to define with clarity what the people of Utah think is the best system," McKeown said.

He said Count My Vote is already raising money to cover the cost of the poll, expected to be underway shortly. The price tag for the initiative effort is expected to exceed $1 million.

"We're finding enthusiastic support," McKeown said, adding that once the poll determines which option is most popular, the kickoff for the petition drive will be set, likely for later this summer. "Hopefully, we'll conclude some things relatively soon."

To qualify for the November 2014 general election ballot, backers of an initiative will need to collect more than 101,000 voter signatures in at least 26 of Utah's 29 state Senate districts by mid-April of next year.

Earlier this year, Count My Vote offered to scrape plans for an initiative petition drive in exchange for alterations to the current system to make it easier to participate in party caucus meetings and harder for candidates to avoid a primary.

Both Republicans and Democrats now determine their nominees through a process unique to Utah that begins with a single night of caucus meetings to select delegates to party conventions who actually choose which candidates will be on the ballot.

Candidates who win the backing of at least 60 percent of the delegates are able to avoid a primary election. Count My Vote had sought to raise that threshold to two-thirds.

But delegates at last month's Republican Party State Convention rejected the proposals from Count My Vote, and Democrats are only willing to look at either keeping the current system as it is or replacing it with an open primary.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, who is also a state senator, slammed what he called interference in private party decisions by the Republican-dominated group.

"We don't need help from a self-serving group of Republicans," Dabakis said. "They need to butt out."

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