Bill seeks compromise on caucus system changes

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Utah’s unique caucus and convention system is getting a closer look in the Legislature amid complaints that it is exclusionary and allows factions such as the tea party to advance extreme candidates at the expense of more moderate politicians.

Sen. Curt Bramble, a Provo Republican, is sponsoring legislation that he said strikes a compromise between those who want to move to a direct primary and those who want to preserve the system.

The Senate’s business and labor committee approved the bill 7-0 Friday morning, advancing the proposal to the full Senate.

“We have competing views that were unable to find common ground,” Bramble said Friday. “So I felt it appropriate for the Legislature to weigh in.”

A group called Count My Vote, backed by several high-profile Republicans, is gathering signatures in order to let Utah votes decide this fall if they want to dump the caucus system.

An opposition group protecting the caucus system argues it levels the economic playing field by forcing candidates to win over local delegates in person.

Bramble’s middle-ground bill would require parties to either adopt changes that make the process more inclusive or move to a primary election system.

Representatives from the group Count My Vote did not testify Friday, but the group later released a statement critical of Bramble’s proposal.

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

The bill “could harm the good-faith efforts of citizens to vote and enact a law,” the statement said.

The group has argued the caucus system is difficult for many people to participate in because they have to attend local neighborhood caucus meetings on a specific night for their voices to be heard.

Taylor Morgan, Count My Vote’s executive director, said they have so far gathered tens of thousands of signatures for their initiative. They need to gather more than 100,000 signatures by April 15 to put their proposal before voters this November.

A group called Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, which is working to oppose Count My Vote, has no official position on Bramble’s bill, spokesman James Humphreys said.

His group is focused on fighting the initiative petition, Humphreys said.

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.

The state Republican and Democratic parties rejected changes last year to raise those thresholds and thus force a primary in more races.

Bramble’s bill would require political parties to allow members cast absentee votes for neighborhood caucus meetings.

It would also raise the threshold to at least 65 percent in order for a candidate to avoid a primary election. If the threshold is not met and a primary election takes place, it must be open to unaffiliated voters.

If parties don’t adopt those changes, they’d have to adopt a primary system, Bramble’s bill says.

Bramble said his bill weaves together elements from both sides and preserves the caucus system.

James Evans, the chairman of the Utah Republican Party, told The Salt Lake Tribune last week that he wasn’t declaring support for Bramble’s bill, but he did want to see a solution that all flanks of his party could accept. Evans did not return messages from the Associated Press seeking comment.

Matt Lyon, the executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, said the party has no position on either Bramble’s bill or Count My Vote’s efforts.

Some defenders of the caucus system have embraced Bramble’s idea, but others argued his bill cuts off the party’s right to decide how it picks candidates.

Lane Beck, a former Cache County councilman and supporter of the caucus system, said he opposes Bramble’s bill and the initiative petition.

Both proposals dictate to the parties how they have to run elections, Beck said.

Former Democratic state Rep. Kelly Atkinson told lawmakers he supports the bill because it keeps the caucus system, which he said is more democratic.

“It allows common people, people like me, to sit down with their neighbors and decide who’s going to represent them,” Atkinson said. “That system allows for senators, standing United States senators, to sit in my home and talk to me about what they’re going to do to make a difference in this country.”

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Online:

SB 54: http://1.usa.gov/1dpokmV

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