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SALT LAKE CITY — Despite concerns the deal reached to stop the Count My Vote initiative is a "death warrant" for the state's caucus and convention system for nominating candidates, it won both House and Senate approval Wednesday.
SB54, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, now preserves the system that gives party delegates elected at caucus meetings the power to choose nominees while allowing candidates another way to get on a primary election ballot.
The bill, which had been changed Monday to reflect the agreement announced over the weekend, passed the House 49-20 midday and then moved quickly to a 21-7 vote in the Senate. SB54 now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert for his action.
Backers of the initiative to replace the caucus and convention system with a direct primary election have said they will continue to circulate petitions until the bill is signed by the governor.
The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said at the end of an hourlong floor debate that giving candidates the option to secure a spot on the primary ballot by gathering signatures isn't necessarily better than the current system.
"I argue it can be more inclusive," McCay told his fellow representatives. "I further argue that this process does represent an opportunity for a state that is dominated by a single party to reach out and grab more people."
The bill goes further than the Count My Vote initiative, opening up all primary elections to unaffiliated voters. Currently, only registered Republicans can vote in GOP primaries, while Democratic primaries are open to all voters.
House Minority Assistant Whip Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said while the bill has its flaws, "it is a move forward to represent everyone in our community who deserves an equal voice."
Other House members, however, were more concerned about the impact of creating another path to the primary ballot.
Both Reps. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, and Jon Stanard, R-St. George, called themselves strong supporters of the caucus and convention system and warned the bill would spell its doom.
"I cannot cast a vote that signs its death warrant," Greene said. "I truly believe if amended SB54 passes, this dual track is illusory. The caucus-convention system will shrivel on the vine and die before our very eyes."
Stanard also predicted the system would come to an end.
"We're causing the death of the convention system. And if we pass this bill, it's only a number of years before it's done," he said.
Concerns included whether lawmakers should be telling political parties what to do.
"This is not our fight," said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, raising constitutional questions.
And several lawmakers took issue with the impact the signature gathering would have on rural elections and the possibility a candidate could win a primary election without a majority of the vote.
McCay said those issues can be dealt with in the future.
There was much less debate in the Senate.
Though he voted for the measure, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said the Count My Vote initiative was about a few wealthy people who want to get elected without having to meet with delegates.
"I'm very, very offended at the tactics that Count My Vote employed since SB54 was first introduced," Weiler said, referring to the ad campaign initiative backers mounted saying the Legislature was undermining the will of Utahns. "This never was about the will of the people."
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, was the only Democrat to vote against the bill, joining some of the more partisan Republicans in the Senate.
"This is pretty much a plan to get around delegates," Dabakis said.
Bramble said the bill isn't perfect, noting the possibility that with multiple names on a primary election ballot, a candidate could advance with less than a majority vote. Also, candidates in rural counties could get on the ballot with as few as 10 signatures.
Still, he said the bill has the potential to dramatically increase participation in the electoral process.
The governor had threatened to veto the original version of SB54, which would have allowed political parties to avoid a direct primary by making some changes to the current system.
Herbert said Tuesday that while he would consider the new version of the bill carefully, he was encouraged by the compromise.
Contributing: Dennis Romboy