SALT LAKE CITY — A group that’s pushed for years to overhaul Utah’s system for nominating political candidates plans to ask voters next year to change state law so candidates can only become their party’s nominee by competing in a primary election, the group announced Wednesday.
Count My Vote’s initiative restarts an effort abandoned in 2014 when the group’s backers struck a deal with state lawmakers that created two paths to becoming a party’s chosen candidate.
Count My Vote backers, including former Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt, said in a statement that moving entirely to a primary election would improve voter participation, improve access to the ballot and require a party’s nominee to get a broad level of support.
The group must hold public hearings and gather more than 113,000 signatures to make it on the 2018 ballot.
Count My Vote agreed to drop a similar initiative three years ago when lawmakers passed a law that allowed candidates to bypass the party’s nominating conventions and instead participate in a primary by gathering voter signatures.
The system of neighborhood caucuses and nominating conventions requires people to attend meetings in-person at specific days and times to eventually choose political party nominees.
Rich McKeown, Count My Vote’s executive chairman, said in August that the group was planning to run its initiative again, feeling that the 2014 compromise has since been threatened by several unsuccessful efforts to chip away at it in the Legislature, several unsuccessful legal challenges filed by the state Republican Party and some GOP delegates spurning candidates who gather signatures.
The GOP has unsuccessfully argued the compromise law is unconstitutional, but appealed its case to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Defenders of the convention system say it allows delegates, who are selected to vote on behalf of their local neighborhood party members, to more thoroughly vet candidates. Defenders also argue the system allows candidates without deep pockets to compete by pitching themselves in small meetings with delegates instead of paying to blanket the airwaves with campaign ads.
Count My Vote has pushed for changes since 2010, when three-term U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted at the GOP convention amid the tea party movement.
The group argues that it’s difficult for many people to participate in the convention system, with its requirement of attending meetings in person. The group says the small portion of party faithful attending conventions has resulted in more extreme political positions or candidates without broad support.
That argument has been supported by elections held since the law took effect.
In both a special election this year to replace Republican Jason Chaffetz in Congress and a 2016 gubernatorial election, small groups of GOP delegates picked far-right candidates who were later trounced in GOP primaries by more moderate candidates.
Besides Leavitt and McKeown, backers of Count My Vote include former first lady Norma Matheson, whose husband, Scott Matheson, led was Utah’s last Democratic governor; Salt Lake County Democratic Mayor Ben McAdams; and Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller.
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