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Governor Gary Herbert is hinting he might veto SB 54 - Sen. Curt Bramble’s bill that would effectively neuter the Count My Vote citizen’s initiative.

I hope he doesn’t.

 

Because when the bill passes (let’s face it - lawmakers would be stupid not to vote for Bramble’s measure), it’s going to set off an epic court and media war that will stretch from the final day of the legislature until election day 2014.

The first reason I want to see this is purely selfish. As a journalist I openly root for chaos because it’s interesting. The coming battle royale in the actual courts and the court of public opinion is not to be missed. You think both sides have been testy before now? Just wait to see what happens when there are real court challenges and raised stakes in the mix.

The second, and most important reason, is this is an issue that deserves its day in court. Both sides have raised fundamental questions on how elections should be run in Utah. Who should control access to the ballot? Should parties be allowed to set their own rules for nominating? Should lawmakers control the process that puts them in office?

These are big questions that deserve answers. I’m afraid the only way we will get them is through the judicial system. As usual, the only winners here will be the lawyers.

Neither “Count My Vote” nor Bramble’s SB 54 can claim to be the definitive answer. Both are simply methods to solve what ails Utah’s electoral system. Caucus defenders cannot claim that the current system is just fine given the fact that thousands of Utahns have already signed the “Count My Vote” petition. As Sen. Todd Wieler said during a committee hearing on SB 54, those thousands of signatures say plenty of Utahns think the status quo is not working. The legislation would allow those on the side of caucus preservation to claim they are making changes for the better.

Count My Vote proponents are tarred with the perception that they are a bunch of “big money” Utahns who couldn’t get elected through the current process, so they need to change it in order to stack the deck in their favor. That argument is a powerful one because it calls into question whether a direct primary system would be fair.

This is a fight that is clearly worth having.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Bramble’s bill is just a cynical exercise of legislative power designed to head off a fundamental right that is granted to Utahns in the state constitution. Lawmakers have been making it harder and harder to get a citizen’s initiative on the ballot, and this is just another brick in that wall. Eventually, they’ll go too far and get smacked down by the citizenry...maybe. By the way, isn’t the government going out of it’s way to deny rights to the citizenry a form of tyranny? I’m sure my libertarian friends would disagree on this issue...but that’s only because they’ve found a home inside Utah’s Republican Party.

But, if Bramble’s bill does pass, it’s basically an admission by Utah’s legislature (many of whom are active caucus supporters) that the caucus system is broken, and the only way to save it from certain doom is to head off the effort at the pass.

Here’s what I hope doesn’t happen. Lawmakers pass SB 54, which derails the “Count My Vote” initiative. After that happens, they come back next year and gut SB 54, returning us to the current caucus system, and nothing has changed after all is said and done.

It’s a real possibility. After all, this exact situation has happened before.

In 1994, the Utah Legislature passed a term limits measure in an effort to head off a proposed citizen’s initiative that would have been much more restrictive.

In 2003, when those term limits were about to go into effect, the Legislature repealed the law. I remember interviewing a young Senator from Utah County who was heading up the repeal effort. I think his name was Bramble.

It’s deja vu all over again on Utah’s Capitol Hill.