Powell Pushing Dual-Track Path to Primary Ballot

State Rep. Kraig Powell stood stone-faced last summer at a Capitol Hill press conference where Count My Vote leaders announced their citizen initiative – a change in Utah’s primary election system whereby candidates would get on a primary ballot by getting signatures of 2 percent of their party’s registered voters.


Powell, R-Heber City, told UtahPolicy after that press conference that he was deeply disappointed that CMV – and especially petition board member Kirk Jowers – had abandoned an earlier idea of providing a dual-track route to a party’s primary ballot.

The dual-track would work like this: A candidate could go through the traditional caucus/convention system to get on the ballot, or he or she could gather the required percent of signatures to make the primary.

“I worked very hard to get support for this” dual-track reform, Powell told UtahPolicy at the CMV press conference.

Now to see just a direct primary – where caucus/convention folks would not be part of a candidate’s nomination process – was a “real disappointment,” Powell said then.

Well, the Heber lawyer is not just sitting by with his disappointment.

He’s opened a bill file for the 2014 Legislature that would do what he believed CMV originally was proposing – a dual-track option to a party’s primary election.

“I’m watch CMV very closely,” said Powell, to see how the group responds to what Powell believes are real Republican concerns over a direct primary route.

The group (UtahPolicy’s publisher’s LaVarr Webb is on the CMV board) has filed its 2 percent petition, seen here.

It has held its required seven public hearings and has started its petition signature gathering.

CMV must get 102,000 registered voter signatures statewide, 10 percent in 26 of 29 state Senate districts, by next April 15.

If it makes that goal, its 2-percent primary proposal will be on the 2014 general election ballot.

If it passes there, in 2016 party caucus/conventions will have no direct say in who the party’s nominees are – that will be up to primary election voters of their political party.

But, if Powell’s dual-track candidate nomination bill is ALREADY law come the 2014 November election, then the political dynamics of the CMV petition, on that election ballot, could be very different.

And to add insult to injury, Powell is looking at the memorandum originally written by Jower’s Washington, D.C., law firm on the legality of the dual-track process as the basic language for his yet undrafted bill.

“The legal work has already been done; I just have to plug it in,” said Powell.

Jowers is director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. But he’s kept his position as a lawyer/lobbyist for a D.C. firm, and often travels to Washington on business for that firm.

Jowers is, along with former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt and Leavitt top aide Rich McKeown, one of the original backers of some kind of change to Utah political party’s caucus/convention candidate nomination process.

It was a surprise to Utah politicos when Count My Vote’s petition language came out this summer – and the dual-track system that had been talked about for more than a year turned out to be a direct primary instead.

Leavitt, McKeown and other CMV backers say the dual-track process was too complicated – perhaps too difficult to explain to petition signees and voters.

Whereas the direct primary system – now used in 45 other states – is a cleaner and more effective process for party rand-and-file members to chose their nominees.

Jowers told UtahPolicy on Monday that he can’t speculate on how the politics of a CMV November vote may change if Powell is successful in the January-March 2014 general legislative session, and his dual-track bill becomes law.

“I think CMV will succeed,” said Jowers, who has been active in elective GOP politics mostly outside of party ranks. For example, Jowers has been Mitt Romney’s advisor/fundraiser here in Utah and in other areas of the country.

“I’ve been writing about changing our (candidate nominating) system since 2006,” said Jowers.

And, yes, he at first was researching and pushing the dual-track option.

After conducting an extensive poll last spring, CMV board members, however, decided to abandon the dual-track and go instead with a direct, signature-gathering route to a party primary.

Jowers says that should the 2014 Legislature chose the “hybrid” dual-track option, “that would be a legitimate step forward” in reforming Utah’s antiquated caucus/convention system.

However, he believes more is needed.

He declined to guess what having a dual-track law in place would have on the chances of CMV’s proposal passing on a 2014 November general election.

“There are so many hypotheticals – would the Legislature change (Powell’s dual-track bill). Will they water it down so much” that it really wouldn’t be much of a reform?

“There’s so much that could come into play,” said Jowers.

He has no problem with Powell using his dual-track legal research, previously published.

“For several years I’ve been saying this (a dual track) was a better step forward” than just trying to reform the caucus/convention system internally.

Powell “is right, we crossed all the Ts on the hybrid. And a few other states use it and it has proven a good model for them,” said Jowers. “It is constitutional,” his research shows, Jowers added.

Powell admits that there’s only a slight chance that Utah’s 104 part-time legislators – all, whether Republican or Democrat, have come through the current caucus/convention system and most are supporters of it – would pass a dual-track law.

But at least the dual-track alternative should be presented as an option, Powell believes.

Since Powell himself doesn’t have the resources – money and paid or volunteer help – to run a citizen petition initiative, he can at least introduce a bill to provide for the dual-track option.

Earlier this year the idea of changing their current caucus/convention rules – perhaps raising the convention nominating threshold of 60 percent of delegate votes to 70 percent or even 80 percent – was put before the state GOP Central Committee and state organizing convention.

In both cases, CC members/delegates voted the ideas down.

Democrats discussed the caucus/convention system in their 2013 state convention, also refusing to make major changes.

Given that reality, CMV leaders said they were going ahead with their petition drive – and dumped the dual-track option in favor of a straight primary route.

Then two weeks ago, in an emergency meeting of the state GOP Central Committee, members passed changes to how GOP caucus night meetings will be held.

Those who can’t attend may send in an absentee delegate-picking ballot, meetings will be held to two hours maximum, those running for delegates will announce before the meeting, and other possible changes will be made before the March 2014 mass meetings.

But the GOP CC did not address at all changes that could lead to more Republican candidates getting on to their primary ballot, said Jowers.

Even though Powell believes the dual-track idea has some real advantages, he told UtahPolicy that in the 2014 Legislature his bill “has a small chance” of success.

“At this point,” said Jowers, “CMV has to continue rolling at 110 percent not only for its own sake, but to keep all people working toward reform” in some form or another.