Despite being specifically authorized to run a pro-caucus/convention citizen petition this year, because of time and money constraints the State Republican Party will not go forward with its own citizen initiative drive.
GOP chairman James Evans told UtahPolicy this week that “I have to concentrate all my efforts” on preparing for the March 20 statewide GOP neighborhood caucuses, where county and state party delegates will be chosen.
Evans says he was hampered in his organizational efforts when his state Central Committee – made up of about 120 party loyalists – declined his recommendation that they appointed Rick Votaw state treasurer.
Instead, the CC, with the large Utah County contingent voting basically as a bloc, picked a Utah County man for the open treasurer slot.
Votaw was Evans vice chair when Evans ran the Salt Lake County GOP several years ago.
In addition, state GOP executive director Jeff Peterson has resigned in preparation to starting law school next fall.
Not having two experienced top aides he’s familiar with, said Evans, along with other issues, means Evans must spend more of his time personally organizing the caucuses – a more important task that trying to run a statewide citizen initiative petition-gathering operation.
Some political insiders believed that the March GOP caucus meetings would be the ideal place for pro-caucus/convention initiation petition gathering.
“There will not be a counter initiative to Count My Vote,” said Evans.
That’s a relief to CMV organizers, who by April 15 must turn in petitions that have at least 102,000 signatures statewide, with 10 percent of the signees coming in 26 of the 29 state Senate districts.
If that is achieved, then the Count My Vote initiative will be on the November 2014 general election ballot.
Last spring, the GOP CC passed a resolution specifically calling on the elected party leadership to run an alternative to the Count My Vote petition.
Entitled, My Vote Counts, the idea of that initiative would have been to set in state law the current party caucus/convention system.
In effect, the MVC initiative – if it had gotten the same required number of registered voter signatures – would have been an on-the-ballot alternative to Count My Vote.
Now that won’t happen.
And if CMV makes the ballot it will stand alone for an up or down vote by citizens.
Count My Vote would bypass the current party candidate caucus/convention nominating process. Any party candidate who got 2 percent of his party’s registered voters’ signatures in the district he was running in (or statewide for the offices of governor, AG and U.S. Senate) would automatically get on the party’s primary ballot.
The candidate nominating power of the 4,000 state GOP delegates would be neutered.
Evans said while he still supports the caucus/convention system – and opposes the 2 percent threshold requirement of CMV – he recognizes “that there are good Republicans on both sides of this issue.”
However, Evans said it is “basically unfair” that GOP candidates in many races would have to gather more voter signatures to reach their 2 percent than would Democratic candidates.
Utah is heavily Republican. And in most state legislative and major races, like governor, the GOP candidate would have to gather many more signatures to make the Republican primary ballot than would any Democratic candidates.
“As a party, we are obligated to point out to our members that the vote threshold (the 2 percent) puts Republicans at a competitive disadvantage” in many races, Evans told UtahPolicy.
That’s because in a state House race, for example, the GOP candidates may have to gather 200 signatures while the Democratic candidates may only have to gather 50 to make their respective primary party ballots.
CMV drafters decided to go with the registered voter route so it would be “fair” to all, supporters have told UtahPolicy in the past.
Since there would be more registered GOP voters in a district than Democratic registered voters, it would be equally hard to achieve either number.
Also, getting on the primary ballot is a show of support from party rank-and-file, and so should be proportional, CMV backers argue.
The proposed language of CMV is locked in, and can’t now be changed. But should it make and pass the 2014 ballot, legislators could amend the open primary law later. And Republicans hold huge majorities in the Utah House and Senate.
In any case, Evans finds himself between a rock and a hard place.
On the one side is the conservative, sometimes ideologically-driven Central Committee – which just turned its back on Evans’ choice for treasurer.
On the other side are more moderate Republicans, often local businessmen, who fund the Utah GOP operations.
Many of those are standing with CMV, which is being headed by former three-term Gov. Mike Leavitt and a number of big-name Republicans and Democrats.
Evan’s chairmanship job is to get Republicans elected. And he needs both money and grassroots support to do that.
A bitter internal fight over CMV could tear apart the coalition that keeps the state Republican Party running smoothly.
Meanwhile, the PIC opposing CMV raised just around $10,000 last year.
It is clear who is winning the money fight over open primaries.
Utah law allows opponents of a citizen initiative petition about one month after the April 15filing deadline to go over the public signatures and ask signees to take their names off the petition.
Evans said he couldn’t comment now on whether the state GOP would use their own membership lists and public voter registration files to contact registered Republicans who sign the CMV petition and ask them to remove their names.
While CMV opponents may not be able to drive the overall signature count under 102,000 (CMV supporters say they are aiming for 140,000 signatures overall), in some smaller Senate districts there may be so few signees that opponents could get the numbers below 10 percent.
And if CMV only had 25 Senate districts, not the required 26, the petition would fail to make the ballot.
“The only reason we would do that” – ask people to take their names off the CMV petitions – “would be over the (2 percent) problem,” said Evans.
But that decision hasn’t been made, he added.
For now, said Evans, a payday lender owner, he will begin working full time at GOP Salt Lake City headquarters, trying to organize a good turnout for the March 20 caucuses. (The chairmanship is a volunteer position, unpaid.)
2012 saw record caucus turnout for both parties – around 120,000 for Republicans.
That was because LDS Church leaders pressed hard for members to attend their respective caucuses and U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch’s re-election campaign independently turned out supporters.
Evans says his goal is to get at least 80 percent of the 120,000 seen two years ago – and that will be a hard lift.
Even though the state CC refused to amend their internal rules last spring to accommodate CMV concerns, recently the governing body did agree to allow a form of absentee balloting in the March 20 meetings so Republicans who can’t attend their neighborhood caucuses can still vote for a county or state delegate.
But for now CMV supporters don’t have to worry about an opposing initiative on the 2014 ballot.
(Editor’s note: UtahPolicy publisher LaVarr Webb is on the CMV board.)