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Count My Vote supporters call legislation undoing agreement 'troubling and alarming'

Supporters of the Count My Vote initiative Friday warned lawmakers against altering a deal they made last year that preserved the state's unique candidate nominating process.
Supporters of the Count My Vote initiative Friday warned lawmakers against altering a deal they made last year that preserved the state's unique candidate nominating process.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Supporters of the Count My Vote initiative Friday warned lawmakers against altering a deal they made last year that preserved the state's unique candidate nominating process.

"We stand ready to take our case to the public should the Legislature backtrack on its commitment," read a letter to state senators signed by former Gov. Mike Leavitt and other initiative supporters.

Last week, a pair of controversial bills sponsored by Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, that are aimed at slowing or stopping the compromise between Count My Vote and lawmakers won committee approval.

The Count My Vote letter took issue with those and other bills seen as undoing the terms of the deal, which allows candidates to bypass the caucus and convention system and instead gather signatures to win a spot on the primary ballot.

"We find this troubling and alarming. In our judgment, it violates the good faith of the compromise we all worked to achieve that preserves the caucus system, while providing additional ways for the public to engage in the political process," the letter stated.

In exchange for getting an alternative path to the ballot, initiative supporters had halted a statewide petition drive that was expected to put a referendum calling for a direct primary election before voters last November.

Jenkins said the compromise contained in last session's SB54 was not made with the political parties. Utah Republican Party leaders have taken the state to federal court, claiming the deal violates their constitutional rights.

The senator said he doesn't know what impact the letter will have on his legislation.

"I'll find out, won't I," Jenkins said. He said he hopes the threat of possibly another initiative won't cost him support for his bills. "I felt like I had my rights taken away from me."

Jenkins said his proposed constitutional amendment, SJR2, would give voters the chance to decide whether they want to keep the current system that allows candidates with enough support from party delegates to be nominated without a primary election.

While the constitutional amendment would repeal the compromise, Jenkins' SB43 would delay the deal until after the 2016 election. He said that allows time for the issues raised by the lawsuit to be settled, as well as for political parties to make changes needed to comply with the law.

Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters earlier this week the compromise should not be delayed.

"I think we need to move ahead," the governor, a Republican, said. "Whatever happens, happens with the court case."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said after a meeting with Count My Vote supporters that the tone of their letter "works with some and it incites others. That's the reality."

But Niederhauser said he intends to honor the agreement reached last session.

"A deal is a deal is a deal, and I'm going to live up to that deal personally," the Senate leader said, acknowledging that lawmakers who didn't support it last year or who are new may feel differently.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said lawmakers may still want to deal with issues related to the compromise this session, particularly what happens when multiple candidates are on the ballot and no one wins a majority of the votes.

The Count My Vote letter, however, asks that lawmakers "uphold your end of our agreement by not altering or delaying the implementation of the election reforms we worked together to achieve."

Kirk Jowers, a founder of Count My Vote and the head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said volunteers and contributors to the initiative effort are concerned about what they see happening this session.

Jowers said he and others met with Niederhauser to "trust but verify" promises lawmakers would not go back on their word.

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