POLITICS: Campaigns

Utah election overhaul advocates file initiative

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Politics,Associated Press,Utah,Campaigns

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A group of prominent Republicans led by former Gov. Mike Leavitt has taken a key step in their campaign to revolutionize the way Utah elects candidates for political office.

The Count My Vote group filed an application for an initiative petition Wednesday which would do away with the current caucus and convention nominating system.

If the group gathers enough signatures, the petition would ask voters in next year's election to decide whether to have candidates instead compete in a direct primary election.

Leavitt and other Count My Vote organizers speaking at a news conference outside the state Capitol Wednesday morning said the current system is antiquated and prevents many people from having a voice.

"It excludes large parts of our population from participation because we are expected to gather on a single moment at a single time on caucus night," said Rich McKeown, Leavitt's longtime chief of staff and one of Count My Vote's organizers. "There are many of us who are unable to be there and are therefore unrepresented in this process.

The state's Republican and Democratic parties have resisted changing the system.

Utah is among a handful of states that use a system of local caucus meetings and a nominating convention. Under Utah's system, a candidate can avoid a primary by receiving 60 percent of the vote from delegates at the conventions. If no candidate reaches the 60 percent threshold, the top two candidates compete in a primary election.

In response to Count My Vote's advocacy, both parties earlier this year considered making changes to the system, but ultimately rejected them.

Republican delegates to the party's annual statewide meeting in May resoundingly rejected proposals to raise the 60 percent threshold to 66.6 or 70 percent, which would force more candidates to face primaries.

At the Democratic Party's annual organizing meeting in June, party delegates rejected a proposal to dump the system for direct primary elections.

Once the parties rejected the changes, organizers with Count My Vote decided to carry on with their initiative petition.

The Utah lieutenant governor's office, which oversees elections in the state, must approve the group's application. Once it's approved, the group is required to hold public hearings across the state before they begin gathering the nearly 102,000 signatures needed by April 15 to make it on the 2014 ballot.

"Gathering signatures of 102,000 people is a formidable task, but we're confident that people want a change," Leavitt said.

Kyler Hodgson, a 21-year-old from Bountiful, said at the news conference Wednesday that he missed voting in the 2012 nominating process because he was serving as a Mormon missionary in Ukraine.

"I am one of literally thousands in my hometown and across the Utah that are excluded by the current system," Hodgson said.

Amanda Allen, a mother of three young boys in Bountiful, said parents want to influence who gets elected, but it can be tough for them to find time to participate in the current process.

Earlier this month, Count My Vote announced they had raised more than $500,000 for the petition effort.

While backed by many prominent Republicans, one of the campaign's co-chairs is former first lady Norma Matheson. Her husband, Scott Matheson, led the state from 1977 to 1985 and was Utah's last Democratic governor.

"I think it's going to help us reach that goal of having more voters participate in the electoral system," Matheson said Wednesday. "It's important for the process and it's very important for the state of Utah to have an engaged electorate."

Gail Miller, the widow of former Jazz owner Larry Miller, also serves as a co-chair of the effort.

Other current and former politicians turned out to support the effort Wednesday, including former Republican Gov. Norm Bangerter, and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, both Democrats.

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