SALT LAKE CITY — An initiative petition drive that would replace the state's unique caucus and convention system for selecting political party nominees was launched Wednesday at the state Capitol.
Former Gov. Mike Leavitt and other supporters of the Count My Vote initiative filed the paperwork to begin collecting the nearly 102,000 signatures needed from voters around the state to put the issue on the November 2014 ballot.
"We're confident people want a change," Leavitt said, describing the effort as modernizing the system to encourage more Utahns to vote. "We're the only state where a handful of people, just a handful of people, routinely choose" candidates.
If the initiative succeeds, Utah would use a primary election to pick party nominees. Currently, candidates with enough support from party delegates can secure the nomination without a primary.
A bipartisan group of prominent political figures, including former Gov. Norm Bangerter, a Republican, and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and former first lady Norma Matheson, all Democrats, gathered at the Capitol for the announcement.
They were joined by other Utahns, including a former missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Kyler Hodgson, 21, of Bountiful, who said he was unable to attend his party's 2012 caucus because he was serving in Ukraine.
"I am one of literally thousands in my hometown and across Utah that are excluded by the current system," Hodgson said.
Initially, the initiative backers had talked about keeping the current system in place while providing an alternative means for candidates to win a spot on a primary ballot.
But Leavitt told reporters they decided to keep the issue simple for voters by calling for a direct primary election.
The initiative would change state law to give a spot on the primary ballot to all candidates who gather the signatures of at least 2 percent of the voters in their party living in the jurisdiction they're seeking to represent.
"We're confident people want a change. We're the only state where a handful of people, just a handful of people, routinely choose candidates."
While political parties could continue to hold caucus meetings to elect delegates to their conventions, their role in selecting nominees would be reduced to providing endorsements that would appear on the primary ballot.
Earlier this year, both the Republican and Democratic parties rejected an attempt by Count My Vote to avoid the initiative by raising the threshold of delegate votes candidates must receive to bypass a primary.
The Utah GOP is considering an alternative initiative petition drive to protect the caucus and convention system. Other options include pushing for an amendment to the state Constitution, Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said.
Evans said moving to a direct primary "is just a fundamental mistake for Utah. Our caucus system has benefited us over the decades." He said primaries would make running for office more costly.
The party may decide to simply campaign against the initiative, Evans said, by asking voters whether "they want their elected officials to be corporate and special interest controlled as opposed to being citizen controlled."
The chairman of the state's predominant political party said the Count My Vote effort to change the nomination system "might be more difficult than they've considered. It does appear somewhat heavy-handed."
Leavitt, who served in President George W. Bush's cabinet and was a key figure in Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, said he's not surprised the political parties are interested in being able to protect the existing system.
"This is a discussion not about political parties. It's a discussion about how the people want to choose the candidates for public office," Leavitt said. "That's the reason we had to use an initiative to get this done."
Before Count My Vote can begin circulating petitions, the lieutenant governor's office must review the initiative language and estimate the cost to taxpayers of changing the law.
Count My Vote is then required to hold seven public hearings around the state. The initiative will need signatures from voters in at least 26 of the state's 29 counties that add up to 10 percent of the votes cast in the last presidential election.
Contributing: Richard Piatt