SALT LAKE CITY - The Utah Senate has given its initial approval to a bill that would alter Utah's election process and potentially circumvent an initiative effort currently taking place.
On a vote of 26-2, the Senate approved of legislation, S.B. 54, which would preserve Utah's caucus and convention system as long as Utah's political parties adhere to a set of measures laid out in the bill. If the parties fail to follow those guidelines, then a direct primary would be forced upon them.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the sponsor of the legislation, characterized the bill as a compromise that gives everyone involved in the issue something they are seeking, but not everything. He said the bill is aimed at increasing voter participation in elections.
"No one gets everything they want in this bill," Bramble said.
The bill is in direct response to an initiative effort taking place called "Count My Vote." The initiative looks to eliminate Utah's caucus and convention system and replace it with direct primary elections.
Currently, Count My Vote is gathering signatures around the state to put their initiative on November's ballot to allow Utah voters to decide if they want to ditch the current system.
Bramble's bill includes the language that Count My Vote is attempting to put into state law but provides an escape hatch for political parties to avoid having direct primaries.
Parties can avoid the primaries if they increase the threshold candidates need to obtain at a convention to avoid a primary from 60 percent to 65 percent, allow unaffiliated voters the chance to vote in their primary election, allow for absentee balloting at neighborhood caucus elections and allow for a two-day window for delegates to be nominated at the caucuses.
Representatives from Count My Vote said Bramble's bill is an attempt to derail their effort as they are close to obtaining the signatures they need to put the initiative on the ballot.
"Read carefully -- it is just a careful ploy. It really is a shocking disregard of the people's voice" said Rich McKeown, executive chair of Count My Vote. "We respectfully ask the legislature to back off."
The debate of the bill in the Senate went just over an hour. Bramble began explaining his bill by describing Count My Vote's history and applauded their effort as he said their attempt has been to increase voter participation in the state.
He then pointed out the flaws he saw in their proposal as he stated that direct primaries would not increase voter participation in Utah. He said the data he has gathered, through his position with the National Conference of State Legislatures, show that direct primaries do not increase voter participation but that competitive races in elections actually increase voter turnout.
Bramble also rejected the notion that his bill was unfair to Count My Vote as it may make it a moot effort. He stated that the Utah Supreme Court has ruled that the legislature is on equal footing with the voice of the people through an initiative process.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, spoke in support of the bill as he stated that he appreciated the provision included in the legislation to allow for unaffiliated voters to participate in primary elections.
Weiler said a number of people in Utah choose not to affiliate with a political party for various reasons, including religious positions, and said they should still have a voice in Utah's primary elections. He observed that in many of Utah's races the Republican primary serves as the "defacto" election and said everyone should be allowed to participate in those elections.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, also supported the bill. He pointed out in his lengthy floor speech that the bill is not designed to protect any of Utah's lawmakers. He observed that the provision to increase the convention threshold to 65 percent would have actually hurt Bramble as it would have caused him to face three primary elections in his last four races. Hillyard also said that a direct primary would increase the amount of money that is poured into elections and push out the lesser-funded candidates.
"It is not right to have a direct primary alone where only people with money and name recognition can win," Hillyard said.
Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, one of the two who voted against the bill, spoke out against it on the floor. She said the current system is broken as it currently is not producing a true representation of the people in those selected to become party delegates at the caucus night elections. She said she thought it was important for the process to be opened up to more people so that more Utahns may have a voice in the election process.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, also voted against the bill.
Dabakis actually criticized Count My Vote as he said the group has been arrogant in how they have handled their business and said it was a group of old guard Republicans looking to regain power in the party. He said the real key to improve voter participation would not be passing this bill or the initiative, but rather forcing Utah's legislature to draw the districts for candidates in a way that they are competitive.
The Senate will vote on the legislation one more time before either sending it over to the House for its consideration or killing it. That vote will likely take place on Friday or the first of next week.
McKeown said Count My Vote will now turn to the airwaves in media advertisements to make its case to the public that S.B. 54 is taking away the people's right to an initiative process. McKeown said the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce has endorsed Count My Vote and through that endorsement the initiative effort has supporters that will aid such a media campaign to inform Utahns about what the Legislature is doing.
"There are members of that community that have access to media and who are prepared to step up and let us be involved with them in both production and in going on the air. We intend to take full advantage of that opportunity," he said.
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