SALT LAKE CITY — A deal that would end the Count My Vote initiative petition drive to establish a direct primary election in Utah was reached Friday night and will be announced Saturday.
Instead of replacing the state's unique caucus and convention system for selecting political party nominees, the deal reportedly would create an alternative way for candidates to qualify for a primary election ballot.
"There have been substantial discussions between members of the Legislature and Count My Vote," said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. "We're hopeful that a resolution can be reached that will bring some positive reforms to our electoral process."
Bramble's SB54, initially drafted to counter the Count My Vote initiative, will be amended in the House Government Operations Committee on Monday to reflect the agreement.
Under the proposal, a candidate running for statewide office — governor, attorney general, state auditor, state treasurer — would need to collect signatures from 28,000 voters to advance to the primary ballot.
Candidates in the state's four congressional districts would need 7,000 signatures. State Senate candidates would need to gather 2,000 signatures, and House candidates would need 1,000.
Those numbers were a major sticking point in the talks between lawmakers and initiative supporters.
In addition to an alternate path to the primary ballot, unaffiliated voters — who account for the largest percentage of Utahns — would be allowed to vote in primary elections under the plan. Currently, only registered Republicans may vote in GOP primaries. The Democratic Party holds open primaries.
"As far as the (Senate GOP) caucus is concerned, we would like to come to an understanding with Count My Vote, and hopefully that will happen," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.
The Senate leader deferred to Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who has been involved in the negotiations that have been quietly underway with the initiative group whose founders include former Gov. Mike Leavitt.
"I can confirm that negotiations are still ongoing. They are tenuous," Valentine said midday Friday. "Hopefully, we'll have some terms. We are discussing it, and we hope we can work out something."
Valentine said there are "a lot of players who have to agree," including Gov. Gary Herbert. The governor was briefed on the agreement Friday.
"That's why it's tenuous. You have to spend time making certain all of the elements are worked out," Valentine said.
Both Senate and House Republicans discussed the negotiations during closed-door caucuses Thursday. Participants said House Republicans also backed making a deal with Count My Vote.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, declined to discuss the caucus, saying only that "we're very much aware of the talks that are out there." She said there is "almost universal support" for the caucus and convention system.
Count My Vote had previously attempted unsuccessfully to get both lawmakers and the major political parties to make changes in the caucus and convention system intended to increase voter participation.
Initiative backers, including political consultant LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News, began circulating petitions to collect the more than 102,000 signatures required to qualify for a spot on the November ballot.
SB54 would have allowed political parties to avoid the direct primary election called for in the initiative by making some changes to the current system.
That sparked harsh exchanges between lawmakers and Count My Vote. Even the governor warned he might veto the bill because it was being seen as "gaming the system to thwart the will of the people."
In a statement issued Friday, Count My Vote said the organization "has been working with the Legislature and Utah’s political parties for years to increase participation. Those discussions continue, as does our initiative petition. We will not stop until Utah voters have a voice through direct primary elections.”
Count My Vote backers had initially talked about a so-called hybrid system for selecting nominees that would continue to allow candidates with enough support from party delegates to avoid a primary election.
But such a system would also give candidates who don't want to go through the caucus and convention system an alternative way to qualify for a primary ballot, likely by gathering signatures from voters.
That option was ultimately rejected in favor of asking voters to simply approve a direct primary election, where all candidates who gathered enough signatures would be on the ballot.
Count My Vote officials have said a hybrid option was too difficult to explain to voters and internal polling found that most Utahns preferred moving to a direct primary.