‘Count My Vote’ Group Pushes for Open Primary System

To the surprise of a number of their early backers, Wednesday Count My Vote leaders formally submitted a citizen initiative petition that would basically discard the current political party caucus/convention candidate nominating system in favor of an open party primary.


The CMV board (UtahPolicy publisher LaVarr Webb sits on that board) decided NOT to go for a dual-track nominating process – where a candidate could either gather a certain number of voter signatures to get on his party’s primary ballot, or he could go through the current caucus/convention system where if he gets 60 percent of his county or state delegate vote in convention, he’s the party nominee.

If no one gets 60 percent, the top two vote-getters go to the primary.

“The (current system) is so antiquated, so in need of real reform, we decided to not try to tweak it, but go with a general primary,” Rich McKeown, president of Count My Vote, told UtahPolicy.

By April 15, 2014, CMV must collect nearly 102,000 voter signatures statewide, with 10 percent of voters in 26 of 29 state Senate districts.

If they make that goal, their petition will be on the 2014 November ballot for approval or rejection by a majority of Utah voters casting ballots.

State Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, attended the petition filing/press conference Wednesday.

Powell is considered a moderate-to-conservative reformer, with a number of ideas about making Utah’s government/election systems more open and transparent.

But Powell was disappointed Wednesday.

Gail Miller, Norma Matheson and former Gov. Mike Leavitt, co-chairs of Count My Vote, sign their petition to establish open primary elections
Gail Miller, Norma Matheson and former Gov. Mike Leavitt, co-chairs of Count My Vote, sign their petition to establish open primary elections
Powell said: “I’ve been working hard for three months (to get support) on the original, Kirk Jowers idea” of a dual nominating system – a candidate can go through the current caucus/convention process, or he can choose to gather 2 percent or 4 percent of voters in his district and go directly to the party primary.

(Jowers is the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah and a CMV board member.)

“I don’t think we should abandon completely” the caucus/convention route, said Powell. “This is not the way to go.”

However, former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt, who is one of three co-chairs of CMV (along with former Democratic First Lady Norma Matheson and Gail Miller, widow of the late Larry H. Miller) said CMV decided that Utah should just join the real political world now.

Forty-four other states have all qualified candidates going to a party primary ballot, said Leavitt. Five other states have some kind of caucus or convention system.

“But only Utah has such a restrictive process” where in reality 30 or 40 county or state delegates can, in essence, pick a Utah House or Senate member.

That’s because many of the 104 part-time Utah legislators come from very Republican or very Democratic districts.

Simply put, if you are the GOP or Democratic nominee, you will win in November.

If 40 GOP delegates, either in a county convention (if the district is all in one county) or in the state convention (if the districts crosses county lines) get you to a 60 percent threshold, you automatically are the party nominee.

This is true in both the Utah State Republican Party and in the state Democratic Party.

It’s clear the main public political theme of CMV is that more Utahns need to participate in the candidate nominating system.

And the current caucus/convention system – where candidates are chosen before a party primary – is driving down voting, both in primaries and in the general election.

In the 1980s Utah was one of the leaders in the nation in voter turnout. Now, even with Mormon Mitt Romney on the 2012 presidential ballot, Utah voters are below the mid-range in turnout in the 50 states, and often near the bottom.

The state GOP last spring, both in the party’s central committee and the state convention, through delegate votes refused to change their current candidate nominating process, even though CMV offered to drop their citizen initiative if the parties would move to a 70 percent candidate nomination threshold, or higher, and made it easier for citizens to attend their March neighborhood caucus meetings.

Three folks – a returned Mormon missionary, a mother with three small boys, and an emergency room doctor, all spoke about how they can’t attend the March neighborhood party meetings where county and state delegates are chosen in the Republican and Democratic parties.

Kyler Hudson said he was on his mission in 2012 and couldn’t attend his mass meetings. Young people, as a demographic, aren’t voting, noted Hudson.

And disenfranchisement of missionaries is just one reason young people don’t care about elections, because they don’t believe their vote counts, he said.

Amanda Allen said, while holding son Lincoln who played with media microphones, she can’t get a teenage baby-sitter for three or four hours on a Tuesday March night on a school day, and so can’t attend her mass meetings, either.

Dr. Christian Neff said that he is either working in a local ER or is on call, and can’t go to his meeting.

Neff said that at 7 p.m. on a weeknight 65 percent of hospital workers are either on duty or involved in a shift change.

Utah’s largest job sector is health care, said Neff. And it’s wrong so many of them are precluded from participating in our core democracy – the mass meetings.

Former GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter supports CMV, but noted in a UtahPolicy interview that direct primaries will only work if more people get involved, learn the issues and candidates, and vote.

Bangerter was governor from 1984-1992, and was speaker of the Utah House before that. He recalled that when he ran for his West Valley House district for the first time back in 1974 the area was so Democratic “that I was the only guy running” as a Republican. No one else thought a Republican could win in West Valley back then.

As governor Bangerter was in one tough convention battle, one easier one.

“The challenge, beyond (the CMV petition) is participation,” said Bangerter. “This primary change will only help the system if all get involved.

“If not, then (going to an open primary) won’t change Utah elections a great deal,” said Bangerter.

Under the CMV petition parties could still decide whether to hold open or closed primaries. That is, the state GOP could only allow registered Republicans to vote in their primaries.

Currently, a registered voter who is not officially affiliated with any political party can, on primary election day, sign up to be a Republican and get a GOP primary ballot.

Democrats can’t switch to Republican on primary day and get a GOP ballot.

Utah Democrats hold open primaries; any registered voter can get a Democratic primary ballot.

In reaction to the CMV effort, the GOP’s central committee has approved a counter citizen initiative petition effort. Called My Vote Counts (a clear attempt to confuse voters), the Republican petition, not yet filed, will in some way attempt to shore up the current caucus/convention system.

One idea is any GOP candidate who doesn’t go through the caucus/convention system and be voted upon by party delegates can’t use the name “Republican” on any of their campaign material, can’t appear under the “Republican Party” banner on the ballot and won’t get any party organizational or financial support from the party.

Leavitt said CMV isn’t worried now about the My Vote Counts effort or its name.

“They will have to obtain 102,000 signatures. We’re confident we can” – hinting that maybe the Republicans can’t achieve that by April 15, 2014.

Leavitt went through three conventions in his gubernatorial elections. He had a tough fight in the first one, finishing second but making the primary ballot.

He coasted in the second convention – a very popular governor.

But by his third convention in 2000 grumpy archconservative delegates were tired of Leavitt. He was forced by an unknown candidate into an embarrassing primary – where Leavitt, still popular among general voters, trounced the upstart.

Leavitt, whose main residence is now in St. George, said he didn’t make his 2012 neighborhood GOP caucus meeting; he was back in Washington, D.C., where he was directing a start-up transition effort for Romney, anticipating a Romney win in November 2012.

Matheson said she remembers a time when Utah led the nation in voter turnout. “I’m sad” that is no longer the case, she said.

“This (citizen initiative) is important for the state of Utah.”