Provo Republican Sen. Curt Bramble’s bill, SB 54, creates a direct primary system. However, political parties are allowed to become “qualified political parties” and keep the caucus convention, pending certain rules.
The first change provides an alternative path to getting on the primary ballot. This will allow a candidate who acquires the minimum required signatures to bypass the caucus system and go directly to the primary ballot. For a statewide office, 28,000 signatures would be required.
The second change is that parties now have opened their elections to unaffiliated voters. Voters who do not wish to be affiliated with any particular party can now vote within the party election of their choice.
Unaffiliated voters make up 46 percent of Utah voters, with Republicans comprising 44 percent and Democrats an estimated 9 percent. Bramble said making voting more accessible to unaffiliated voters was the main reason he got into the debate.
“That largest block has been disenfranchised since the Republican Party closed their primaries in 2003,” Bramble said.
Count My Vote is a movement that initially set out to change the current Utah caucus convention system to a direct primary. In a caucus system, people get together in their neighborhoods to elect delegates who then vet and vote for candidates, while direct primary state candidates are chosen by popular vote.
“The big downside of the caucus is it requires Utah to give their vote to another person,” said Taylor Martin, executive director of Count My Vote.
Count My Vote had been negotiating with the state legislature since October. Martin said this latest petition drive was essential to getting the legislature to act.
“Count My Vote has 100,000 signatures,” he said. “We raised $1.5 million, and they see the poll results and the Utah legislature is scared. Now they’re taking us seriously.”
After months of collecting signatures and running a massive campaign, the Count My Vote representatives agreed to drop their petition in exchange for the changes to the legislation. Count My Vote will continue the petition process until Gov. Gary Hebert signs the bill into the law. The bill still must pass both houses of the legislature before it will arrive on Herbert’s desk.
Some people have criticized the Count My Vote group for raising money and collecting signatures to give Utah voters a stronger voice, then making a deal that kept voters out of the process.
“Any time you deal with smaller groups, you run the threat of people feeling they’ve been excluded or not transparent, but we did the best we can,” said Rich McKeown, Count My Vote executive chair.
McKeown encouraged people to look at the bill and see if they think they will benefit.
“There’s a lot for everyone to appreciate in this bill,” he said.
Those who opposed the Count My Vote measure worried it would take away from candidates knocking on doors and meeting with delegates during election campaigns, and that a direct primary would be ruled by who could outspend or have the most flashy advertising campaign.
Blake Cozzens, state coordinator for Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, said he sees this compromise as the end of the caucus system.
“An alternative path to the ballot allows someone who has a lot of money to use TV ads and radio ads to completely skip the convention process and not even have to meet with the grassroots people who were elected at the convention, which essentially makes the caucus and convention system pointless,” Cozzens said.
Cozzens said Protect Our Neighborhood Elections will seek legal options to stop the legislation. He claimed SB 54 is unconstitutional because it interferes with a private organization’s right to do business the way they want.
Riverton Republican Daniel McKay said that, while people will need to monitor and watch the resources behind the candidates who take the alternative path, he believes people from all walks of life will use this system.
Brad Dee, the Senate majority leader for the state of Utah, said this process is essential to the democratic process.
“Every free nation in the world today is built upon those precepts and concepts of dialogue and discussion and compromise,” Dee said.