SALT LAKE CITY — A bill allowing political parties to avoid the direct primary elections that would be required under the Count My Vote initiative was unanimously approved Friday by a legislative committee, but it continues to generate controversy.
The issue centers on an initiative petition drive, termed Count My Vote, that would replace the state's unique caucus and convention system for selecting political party nominees. The petition is designed to put the election changes on the November 2014 ballot, if enough signatures can be gathered.
The bill, SB54, heard by the Senate Business and Labor Committee, is a response to that drive, with Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, calling it a compromise, but others calling it an effort by lawmakers to stop Count My Vote.
Bramble said the bill requires political parties to make changes sought by Count My Vote or face the direct primary called for in the initiative.
Bramble's bill contains all of the language of the initiative. That apparently means that even if Count My Vote gathers more than 100,000 signatures required by mid-April to get the initiative on the ballot and voters approve it, there still may not be direct primaries.
Count My Vote, started by a group of prominent Republicans including former Gov. Mike Leavitt and political consultant LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News, did not send a representative to testify at Friday's hearing.
The organization did, however, rebuke SB54 in a statement released after the bill passed the committee.
"Legislation that intentionally nullifies legal and proper citizen action is not respectful of the constitutional process — or the people," the statement said, comparing the bill to a controversial attempt several years ago to restrict access to government records that was overturned amid public protests.
The statement also said lawmakers have an "inherent conflict" because they would be affected by the passage of Count My Vote, and that "makes it all the more imperative that officeholders avoid any appearance of choosing self-preservation over respect for the process and the voters."
Bramble said, "This isn't undoing the voice of the people. It's a proposed initiative because it hasn't been on the ballot. They haven’t announced that they’ve qualified for signatures. It's an idea they're putting forward."
He said unlike 2011's HB477, dealing with the Government Records Access and Management Act, his bill had a committee hearing and was available for review for weeks.
Bramble also said the Utah Supreme Court has held that the initiative process and the legislative process carry equal weight.
"We're faced with a dilemma. We have an initiative that has significant flaws in it. We had negotiations that broke down between the parties, so this was put forward as a true compromise proposal that would give both sides something that they could claim victory," he said.
Because of what he called flaws in the initiative, Bramble said it's appropriate for the Legislature to do its constitutional duty.
"I know one thing, the Legislature does speak for the people," the senator said.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, questioned why Count My Vote didn't send someone to testify at the hearing.
“They’re doing it all by public relations instead of meeting people face to face,” Hillyard told reporters.
Rich McKeown, the executive co-chairman of Count My Vote, said the organization's testimony wouldn't have had any impact.
"We kind of knew the direction they were going to take and didn’t feel like we could alter the course they’re taking," McKeown told the Deseret News. He said Count My Vote had tried and failed before to get changes made in the process.
Last year, both the Republican and Democratic parties rejected provisions similar to those in the bill even though initiative backers pledged that if such changes were made, they would not attempt to put the issue before voters.
Now, with the initiative underway, McKeown said lawmakers are trying to circumvent "the will of the people." He said Count My Vote has an obligation to the many people who have signed the petitions and donated money to the effort.
"The people are speaking and they want a direct primary," McKeown said.
Neither the Republican nor the Democratic parties sent representatives to the hearing, but several Republican delegates and others who support the caucus and convention system said they didn't like Bramble's bill.
Some of those in the standing-room-only audience and several members of the committee said during the hearing that lawmakers should not force political parties to extend delegate selection over several days or require candidates to win a higher percentage of delegate votes to avoid a primary.
Dave Duncan, a member of the GOP State Central Committee, testified the bill was "overthrowing the will of the party" by including those provisions.
Duncan said supporters of the current nomination system don't have to choose between the changes in the bill and the direct primary called for by the initiative.
"I think there are a lot of other options, including fighting the Count My Vote initiative," he told the committee. He asked lawmakers to fix what he called the two "fatal flaws" in the bill.
Sen John Valentine, R-Orem, said "dictating" those requirements may be a problem because of the "overriding protections" political parties have under the First Amendment.
Bramble said he agreed with the concerns and said the bill could be amended.
He said it would still require political parties that don’t want to be subject to other changes intended to improve participation in the caucuses where convention delegates are chosen, including allowing absentee voting.
Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, said she benefited from the caucus and convention system as a newcomer to politics and other women do, too.
"Our voice needs to be heard, too," Henderson said during the hearing, noting there are many professions represented in politics but "we also need moms. We also need regular people. We all deserve to be represented."
Contributing: Dennis Romboy