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Groups Reach Deal On Utah Caucus System

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File photo of a voting maching.  (credit: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

File photo of a voting maching. (credit: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A group pushing to overhaul Utah’s system for nominating political candidates has worked out a deal with state lawmakers that both sides say enables more participation.

In a deal announced Sunday afternoon, both sides have agreed on new legislation to preserve Utah’s caucus-convention system but allow primary elections as an alternative path to the ballot if a candidate gathers enough signatures.

Lawmakers and the Count My Vote group were squaring off over the caucus system, which Count My Vote argues is difficult to participate in and results in extremist candidates.

Instead, Count My Vote has been working on a ballot initiative to let voters decide whether to move to primary elections.

Supporters of the caucus system, including many lawmakers, argue it requires politicians to win over delegates in person rather than relying on fundraising and campaign advertisements.

Both sides said the deal will offer the best of both systems and open up primary elections to state’s 665,000 unaffiliated voters.

The deal, which was still being negotiated into the weekend, came after legislators waded into the debate.

Provo Sen. Curt Bramble, a Republican, was working on legislation that would require political parties to adopt changes making their nominating process more inclusive, such as allowing absentee participation. If they did not adopt the changes, parties would have to use a direct primary election.

Count My Vote organizers were opposed to Bramble’s bill, which they said was a run-around on their signature-gathering effort.

The group said Bramble’s proposal could jeopardize their initiative because it uses the same language. If Bramble’s bill had passed, it would put their proposal into law — but as a default option.

The current system of local caucus meetings and a nominating convention is only used by a handful of other states. Under Utah’s system, a candidate can avoid a primary race if he or she gets 60 percent of the votes from delegates at the conventions. If no candidate reaches the 60 percent threshold, the top two candidates compete in a primary.

Count My Vote and Utah legislators say their compromise deal, which would take effect in 2015, will give Utah a dual system akin to the process in Colorado, Connecticut and New Mexico.

Legislative leaders say they intend to pass the bill, which Bramble is sponsoring, sometime in the upcoming week. Count My Vote organizers say they will continue to gather signatures until Gov. Gary Herbert signs the compromise bill.

Count My Vote, which is backed by several high-profile Republicans such as former Gov. Mike Leavitt, announced in late February that they had already gathered more than 100,000 of the 102,000 signatures needed by April 15.

The group has raised significant money to fund its campaign and signature-gathering effort.

According to Count My Vote’s most recent financial disclosures, the organization had about $39,000 on hand in mid-February.

After that report was filed, the group received an additional $60,000 in contributions, $50,000 of which came from Utah’s U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican.

Beyond Hatch, Count My Vote includes former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney as a supporter.

In a Feb. 19 email released by Leavitt’s office, Romney told Leavitt he’s backing the push to direct primary systems.

“Caucus/convention systems exclude so many people,” Romney wrote, “They rarely produce a result that reflects how rank and file Republicans feel.”

James Evans, the chairman of the Utah Republican Party, said Sunday evening that he’s grateful legislators are preserving the caucus system.

“We believe that political parties, we have a right to determine how we select our nominees,” Evans said. “That’s inconsistent with the compromise that was reached, but we are supportive of our elected officials because we recognize the difficult decision they’re having to make.”

Utah’s Democratic Party has remained neutral on the issue.

(© Copyright 2014 the Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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