ST. GEORGE – A crowd of around 30 people gathered Saturday at the Pineview Stadium 10 theaters to kickoff the official start of the Count My Vote petition campaign in Washington County. A bipartisan movement, Count My Vote is a ballot initiative that proposes to replace Utah’s caucus primaries with a direct primary.
Proponents of Count My Vote have said that the state’s current caucus-convention system is out of date and leaves the choice of election candidates in the hands of the few. It is an exclusive system, they argue, and changing it to a direct primary would make the process much more inclusive.
“The current system right now empowers a small handful of individuals,” said Taylor Morgan, Count My Vote’s executive director.
The Utah Republican Party currently has 4,000 state delegates, while the Utah Democratic Party sports 2,700 state delegates. It takes 60 percent of those state delegates – 2,400 for the Republicans and 1,600 for the Democrats – to move a candidate forward unopposed. Primaries are held when no single candidate is able to obtain the majority vote.
Overall, there are some 20,000 delegates between the two political parties thoughout the state.
“That small group chooses candidates for everyone,” Morgan said.
Instead of going through the caucuses, Count My Vote would simply require potential candidates to get the signatures of 2 percent of registered party members in the jurisdiction they reside.
It is estimated that the delegates make up 0.3 percent of the state’s population; that means 99 percent of Utah gets ignored, said Mike S. Leavitt, a Count My Vote volunteer and son of former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt.
“We believe that under a more open (system),” Mike S. Leavitt said, “it allows all voters to have a more open voice.”
Carmen Snow, a local Count My Vote volunteer, said Count My Vote really wouldn’t do away with the caucus-convention system. The political parties could still hold caucuses and conventions and endorse their candidate of choice leading into an open primary.
“The people will have a choice and a vote,” Snow said.
Count My Vote also outlines additional reasons why its proponents maintain that a direct primary is more beneficial than the current system:
- Direct primaries are simple and more accessible
- Delegates don’t always reflect the priorities and values of Utah voters, and instead side with so-called extreme elements within their party
- Individuals excluded by the current system can be included, such as working Utahns, members of the military, missionaries, and others
Well known supporters of Count My Vote include former Utah Govs. Mike O. Leavitt and Olene Walker, as well as former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett. Both Mike O. Leavitt and Walker were slated to be at the event, but were unable to attend.
Not everyone is convinced the initiative is a good idea.
“It’s very dangerous,” Utah House District 62 Rep. Jon Stanard said. He and others also gathered at the theater to voice their opposition to Count My Vote.
Right now Utah officials have to be responsive to the people, Stanard said. A direct primary could make the candidates and subsequently elected officials more accountable to whoever are their campaign contributors.
“The influence goes to whoever the donor is,” Stanard said.
In general, primaries can be expensive for candidates, the additional revenue donors could bring – and the attached influence – is an issue to Count My Vote opponents. Going through a direct primary could substantially raise the cost of campaigning and possibly exclude potential candidates who could otherwise advance with enough delegate support without breaking the bank.
“If you always have to go through a primary, it definitely increases the cost,” said Larry Meyers, a Count My Vote opponent.
In the four times he has run for public office, Meyers said, twice he made it to the primaries. He easily spent five times as much money during the primary phase of those campaigns, he said, and significantly less otherwise.
Due to the concerns of money tainting the election process if direct primaries are allowed, opponents have taken to calling the initiative “Buy My Vote.”
As for the idea that the current system hinders voting participation, Meyers said: “Nobody is being denied the vote. That’s just a false premise they’re setting up.”
Anyone who is a registered Democrat or Republican has the freedom to attend their associated caucuses and participate accordingly, Meyers said.
Recently, the Hurricane City Council passed a resolution supporting the caucus system in its Nov. 21 meeting.
Opponents of Count My Vote have also created a counter-movement called “Protect Out Neighborhood Elections.”
James Humphries, media and public relations chair for Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, has taken issue with the statistics used by Count My Vote.
He said the 0.3 percentage representing state delegates versus the state population is based solely on the 4,000 GOP state delegates. The 99 percent that gets ignored, according to Count My Vote, includes members of other parties, unaffiliated voters, and individuals under the age of 18 – the entirety of Utah’s 1.9 million residents.
“They’re very good at using stats out of context,” Humphries said.
Earlier this year an effort was made by a number of Utah Republicans to reform the state party’s caucus system. When those efforts failed to pass in May, reform supporters moved forward with the Count My Vote initiative.
In order to get the initiative on the November 2014 ballot, Count My Vote supporters need to gather over 102,000 signatures by April 15, 2014.
Ed. Note: The number of state delegates originally reported was found to be in error and has been corrected.
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