'Count My Vote' Makes Their Case on How to Boost Voter Participation

Written by Bob Bernick on . Posted in Today At Utah Policy

Perhaps 30 of the 102 Utah state legislators secretly support the Count My Vote citizen initiative, one of the initiative’s leaders said Tuesday.

 

But this silent minority can’t come out in favor of the direct-primary initiative because they must face what would be unhappy county and state party delegates in the 2014 elections.

In a press conference called by CMV legal experts to reiterate that their petition’s language is “clearly constitutional,” the topic turned to the basis of the initiative: To get more Utahns to vote in both our primary and general elections.

And along that line, Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics and board member of Count My Vote, said that between he, former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt and CMV’s main organizer, Rich McKeown, they had spoken to more than 30 legislators who, while publicly declining to support the initiative, privately told them it was critical that it pass.

That’s because, said Jowers and McKeown, who were at the press conference, the legislators believe it is critical to take the nomination of party candidates out of the hands of a few, selected delegates and let all party members vote on candidates in a primary election.

Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, showed up the press conference and at one point engaged in a mini-debate with the supporters over the petition, which can be read here.

McCay said he and other caucus/convention supporters fear that special interests and their big money could take over primary races if the initiative passes into law.

If approved by voters in the November 2014 election, for the 2016 elections any party candidate who gets 2 percent of his party’s registered voters in his district (or statewide for races like governor and U.S. Senate) to sign his candidacy petition would automatically put him on the party’s primary ballot.

No longer would delegates, picked in March party neighborhood caucuses, vote in convention to nominate a candidate.

“Privately,” the more-than-30 lawmakers have told the CMV leaders “you have to prevail,” said Jowers, who was chairman of former-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s special democracy study commission which recommended, among other things, that something must be done to increase the voter participation in Utah.

Jowers said as an academic he’s been studying Utah’s voting systems since he came to the state in 2006.

And he’s been puzzled why a citizenry – well educated, interested in civic affairs – would turn out to be so poor in voter participation.

He’s come to the conclusion that the current caucus/convention system – in which 80 percent of the candidate selection takes place by party delegates voting in convention – disenfranchises rank-and-file voters, making them believe they really have little say in many of their elections and so why should they bother to vote.

McCay said he and other officeholders and citizens like the current caucus/convention process because it allows – actually requires – candidates to sit down with neighbors (actually delegates) in their living rooms and really get to know the candidates and issues.

Talking to county and/or state party delegates for half an hour or an hour “is a rational check” on the impact of special interests, said McCay, who was first appointed to his District 41 seat by delegates in 2012 and then elected to his first term later that year.

McCay said one of the consequences of adopting the CMV direct primary law would be that candidates would create a “cottage industry” of candidacy nomination petition gathering – in an effort to ensure they get 2 percent of their party members’ signatures.

Unlike the current caucus/convention system, “you will have no citizen check (on special interests) unless (voters) get involved,” educate themselves and vote in primary elections, said McCay.

But Jowers and McKeown said they can find no reasonable reason why involving more party voters – in a primary – is in anyway a bad thing.

In fact, said Jowers, he anticipates that, as is the case in 45 other states, party rank-and-file will still be involved in the candidate selection process.

Most likely all Utah party candidates would feel they must appear before their county and state convention delegates, who would vote on them in a formal “endorsement” process.

And you can bet that the candidate(s) who get formal delegate endorsements will run on that endorsement in the party primary elections, said Jowers.

Jowers said Utah’s C/C process was adopted in the 1880s, is extremely outdated and found in no other state.

No longer do citizens “sit around in a log cabin” discussing politics and candidates.

There is the Internet, where young people go to communicate with each other.

There are many demands that keep citizens from attending their March neighborhood party caucuses – thus disenfranchising them in party convention decisions.

But, said McCay, Utah tried an open primary system before and rejected it.

Yeah, said McKeown, Utah had such a system from 1937 to 1947. “But any of the political scientists at the universities in this state will tell you voter participation goes up” when steps are taken to make voting easier.

“The harder you make something, the less participation there is,” said McKeown.

“The academic research is pretty clear,” said Jowers. “Look around us” and states that have moved to a direct primary system see primary voting improvements.

Jowers said he approached the citizen initiative process reluctantly.

Initially, he wanted the Republican and Democratic parties to each change their convention candidate nomination levels from 60 percent to 70 percent or even 80 percent – levels they were years ago.

That would mean any candidate who got 20 percent convention support would get on the primary ballot with the top delegate vote-getter.

But time and again over the last year party bosses refused to change their policies, including taking any steps to make it easier for folks to participate in March neighborhood party caucuses.

So we have the perfect storm, said Jowers: A Legislature that refuses to act to change the delegate system, because they fear delegate retaliation.

A party leadership that refuses to place more candidates on their primary ballots.

And a dwindling voter participation.

In the 1960s, said McKeown, Utah was routinely in the top five in the states with voter turnout. Now routinely Utah is in the bottom 10 states in voter participation.

McCay also accused CMV of the very thing it stands against: Secret meetings with elites making decisions. Which members of the public or media were present when the CMV petition was drafted?

McKeown said CMV is following current citizen initiative law.

After the Utah Elections Office officially certifies the CMV petition, seven public hearings will be held across the state and then the petition-gathering process will begin.

CMV will use both volunteer and paid signature gatherers. By the April 15, 2014 deadline petitions with “north of 130,000 to 140,000 signatures” will be delivered to the county clerks for voter verification.

If around 102,000 signatures – with 10 percent coming in 26 of 29 state Senate districts – are certified, the petition will be on the 2014 general ballot.

McKeown, Jowers and attorneys Steve Owens and Randy Dwyer – both past presidents of the Utah State Bar – went over the legal strength of the CMV petition. (In the process of certifying the petition, the Utah Elections Office must find it is constitutional.)

They also discussed a previous UtahPolicy story in which it was pointed out that in many Utah elections – because there are so many more Republicans living in an area than Democrats – the GOP candidates will have to gather more signatures to reach 2 percent of their party voters than will Democrats.

That is how other states handle their candidate nomination petitions, said the CMV leaders, and in no way harms or violates equal protection constitutional guarantees.

“Republicans and Democrats are being treated the same,” said Dwyer, who is a professor at the University of Utah Law School. “You both have to get 2 percent of your people” to sign your candidacy petition to get on your party’s primary ballot.

Taylor Morgan, co-executive director of CMV, said after the CMV petition is certified by the Utah Elections Office the time and place of the seven public hearings will be advertised at least three days before the meetings, as required by law.