A bill proposed by Senator Curt Bramble (Republican – Provo) to head off the “Count My Vote” initiative was unanimously passed out of the Senate Business and Labor Committee Friday morning.
The bill would permit voters who are unaffiliated (not registered as either Democrats or Republicans) to vote in a political party’s primary election. Currently in Utah, voters have to be a registered Republican in order to vote in the party’s primary election, while Democrats’ primaries are open to either registered party members or unaffiliated voters. In addition, the bill expands the opportunity for voters to select their party delegates, by allowing them to vote for the delegates either remotely, or by designating their vote by proxy if they cannot attend neighborhood caucus meetings in person. The legislation also raises the threshold of delegate votes for a candidate to avoid a primary to 65 percent or higher.
Former Republican State Senator Dan Liljenquist testified in favor of SB 54 – Election Amendments. “I support this bill. I recognize, as you many do, that participation in our caucus system has been difficult and I think that this brings forward reasonable compromise on how to participate going forward.”
[pullquote]”We’ve got to preserve the wonderful, unique system that we have because it does empower regular people, and I think that there are some who hate that.” Senator Deidre Henderson[/pullquote]The debate over whether to keep the current caucus system or move to direct primaries has been ongoing over the past year, as many establishment Republicans have urged doing away with the power of party delegates to select which candidates will appear on the ballot. The efforts have thus far been rejected by Republican delegates who say the effort is a retaliation for the Tea Party’s delegates’ ouster of long-time Senator Bob Bennett in 2010—whom many of the newly-elected delegates said was not conservative enough—in favor of Mike Lee (who went on to win the Republican primary and the general election) and Tim Bridgewater. The Utah Democratic Party has also rejected a proposal to move to direct primaries, which would allow candidates to appear on a primary ballot regardless of delegate support, although the minority party has not seen the level of intraparty contention that their Republican counterparts have.
The Count My Vote initiative, which is being speared by notable Utah figures like former Governor Mike Leavitt (Republican), has been raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to collect enough signatures to put the initiative on the ballot to let Utah voters decide whether or not to keep the caucus system.
Kelly Atkinson, a Democrat who represented West Jordan in the Utah House of Representatives from 1987-1997, told the committee that he believes moving away from the caucus system would be detrimental to Utah politics. “If we move away to a direct primary system, it will do what I think is destroying the political system in America today, which is interject obscene amounts of money into the political system, removing the common person from aspiring to political office. That’s why Utah’s great. Common people can sit down in their homes, talk to their elected officials, seek office if they choose to seek office without having a big pocketbook. I support this legislation, and thank the Senator for rolling it forward. I believe the caucus system ought to be preserved with the tweaks that he’s suggesting.”
Senator Deidre Henderson (Republican – Spanish Fork) passionately spoke in favor of the legislation. “We need professionals up on the hill. We need business leaders. We need lawyers. We also need moms. We also need regular people. We all deserve to be represented, and you take away this grassroots process, this caucus process, this convention process, this one-on-one process, and you strip a whole group of people their ability to compete in this arena. We’ve got to preserve the wonderful, unique system that we have because it does empower regular people, and I think that there are some who hate that. They don’t want regular people to be empowered and that’s a crying shame.”
The bill unanimously passed out of the committee, and Count My Vote responded by comparing Bramble’s bill to the contentious anti-GRAMA bill HB 477, which was passed by the legislature in 2011 before being repealed due to an enormous public outcry. Count My Vote says Bramble’s bill is an example of “Legislators…deliberately [standing] in the way of citizens to who have legally won the right to vote and enact law… SB 54 is cleverly drafted to give political parties a choice. They either adopt a set of reforms outlined in the bill, or the direct primary language proposed by Count My Vote… The reforms in SB 54 are an improvement over current party nomination process, [however] they maintain the caucus/convention process and leave unchanged the core problem a majority of Utahns want addressed.”