SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah voters are poised to decide whether to make it significantly easier for political candidates to bypass their party’s convention system. An updated count of verified signatures posted by the state’s elections office Thursday shows an initiative has unofficially qualified for the November ballot.
The stakes are high in overwhelmingly Republican Utah, where the race to become the party nominee is often more important than the general election.
Supporters say it gives people greater power to select candidates, while opponents fear it undermines the party-led system.
“It would basically nullify or weaken the caucus-convention system even more than it is,” said Brandon Beckham, the director and co-founder of a group trying to kill the initiative.
The convention system gives advantages to more hard-line party members, critics say.
Longtime Sen. Bob Bennett became a victim of that system in 2010 when he lost the nomination to Mike Lee amid a rise in tea party sentiments. Lee is now in his second Senate term.
In 2014, a dual nominating system was created, allowing candidates to reach a primary either through the convention or by collecting a specific number of voter signatures. But collecting signatures remains unpopular among GOP activists.
Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he believes gathering signatures for his Senate campaign contributed to his failure to win the GOP nomination outright at convention last month.
If approved in November, the new measure would preserve the dual nominating system while lowering the threshold for gathering signatures. For instance, a candidate for statewide office currently needs 28,000 signatures to be on a primary ballot; the new initiative would reduce that to 1 percent of registered party voters, or roughly 7,200 for Republicans.
If approved, it would also likely bolster arguments against legislative efforts to undo the current system, as some lawmakers have contemplated.
“The goal is to increase participation,” said Taylor Morgan, the executive director of the Count My Vote group behind the initiative, via text.
Critics of the dual system claim it unconstitutionally mandates how parties operate, depriving them of their right to free association. They have taken their argument to court but have yet to find any success.
They say that conventions give more power to local delegates who can take the time to properly vet candidates and give equal opportunity to upstarts and deep-pocketed veterans.
“In the signature path there is no accountability. There is no vetting,” said Beckham. “It’s strictly just money.”
To reach the ballot, an initiative needs the signatures of 113,143 voters and to meet thresholds in 26 of 29 state Senate districts. Results aren’t official until they are verified by the lieutenant governor’s office June 1.
The initiative is one of four questions that may reach voters in November. An initiative on medical marijuana has also reached the provisional threshold as has an initiative on expanding Medicaid. One on redistricting is still under review.
Beckham’s organization, called Keep My Voice, is encouraging signers of the petition to remove their signatures, which is possible until May 15. Many were “misled or deceived” about the measure, he said.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who gathered signatures ahead of his 2016 election, has discouraged that strategy, calling it “not good form.”
“Let’s have the debate,” he said last week. “Let’s have the pros and the cons and let’s vote.”
Written by JULIAN HATTEM, Associated Press
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