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Rep. Powell 'dares' Dems to pass Count My Vote bill


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SALT LAKE CITY — Opponents of a bill that would allow political candidates to bypass Utah's unique caucus and convention system to get on a primary election ballot argued Monday that the Legislature has no right to dictate how political parties conduct business.

Former Republican state Rep. Chris Herrod said SB54 violates the First Amendment and freedom of association.

"The party gets to decide the way that it works," Herrod told the House Government Operations Committee. "It's sophistry to say we're not imposing the will (of) the government on the political party."

Neither Republican Party nor Democratic Party leaders spoke at the meeting, though members of the GOP Central Committee suggested that the party would file a lawsuit if the bill passes.

"I can say I dare you to try it. The Republican voters will oppose you and reject you," said Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City.

Powell supports the measure, but some of his GOP colleagues held their noses as the committee voted unanimously to move it to the House floor.

"This kind of stinks. I don't like this bill. It's frustrating to me for lots of different reasons," said Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo.

The bill is the result of an on-again, off-again compromise between majority Republicans in the Legislature and the backers of the Count My Vote initiative to dump the caucus and convention system for direct primary elections.

Both sides announced in a rare Sunday news conference that they had reached an agreement to keep the system but also allow candidates to gather signatures outside a convention to get on the ballot. As part of the deal, Count My Vote would drop its petition drive if the bill passes and Gov. Gary Herbert signs it into law.

The bill calls for political parties to become "qualified" parties by offering the alternate path to the ballot, letting unaffiliated voters vote in any primary election and allowing for alternate delegates at party conventions. If they don't, they would have to hold direct primary elections.

SB54 sponsor Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, agrees the state can't control political parties, but the people, not the parties, decide who gets access to the ballot.

Bramble said he believes if the Legislature does nothing, Count My Vote will gather the signatures needed to get the issue on the November ballot and it would pass.

"This is a pretty simple proposition. Do want to preserve the caucus-convention system? Then you'd vote for this bill. If you want to risk that going away in its entirety, then you would vote against this bill, place it all on black and either work for or against the initiative," he said.

Grover said he's not convinced Count My Vote has the signatures to make the ballot.

"I think we should call their bluff and really go for it and see what happens," he said.

The Republican Central Committee took a position Saturday that the Count My Vote initiative violates the Constitution. It did not take a position on SB54, but former state Rep. Fred Cox noted that the bill includes the initiative language.

The party hasn't decided to sue, but wants to keep it as an option, said Cox, a Central Committee member.

Cox called the initiative and the bill a "Rolls Royce road for the rich and famous" to get on the primary election ballot.

GOP lawmakers from rural areas say the bill would harm them more than it would urban areas.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said, "I don't know that I could be more hurt" when he heard former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney supported the Count My Vote petition. Noel said he and his family spent hours rallying Republicans to sign a petition to get him on the ballot.

Allowing an alternative path to the ballot "dilutes" the GOP brand, he said.

"I think this is unconstitutional," Noel said. "I don't think we have the right to get into this."

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she supports the agreement reached on SB54.

"Sometimes when you're doing a compromise, when you're working on tough issues, when nobody's happy, that means it might be a good idea," the speaker said.

Complaints about the compromise are coming from both sides, Lockhart said, noting that those in favor of the caucus and convention system have asked, "Can we be confident games won't be played?"

Lawmakers will have to come back next session and look at "a couple of things," she said, including plurality. Lockhart said the GOP majority has a responsibility to deal with the issue.

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Dennis Romboy

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