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SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney is asking Gov. Gary Herbert and state lawmakers to make sure Utah holds a presidential primary election in 2016 despite a vote by the Utah Republican Party to switch to a caucus election.
"Every Utah voter deserves to have their vote counted in the selection of the Republican Party's nominee for president in 2016," the former GOP presidential candidate said in a letter delivered to the governor Wednesday.
Copies of the letter were also delivered to the Utah Legislature's Republican leaders, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, as well as to Utah GOP Chairman James Evans.
Evans said the party is going forward with a presidential caucus even if legislation is passed to establish a primary election. He said the GOP is "increasingly having the government take over the party's core functions."
Hughes said he's not "looking to intervene necessarily" in the party's decision.
"To the extent that we drive from the legislative branch how a party would nominate or pick or select its nominees, I think we have to be very careful," he said. "I'd like to do that less as a state government and let the party and its grass roots make those decisions."
The speaker, however, said he did "appreciate the perspective from Mitt Romney. I think it adds to the dialog."
Should that occur, tens of thousands fewer voters will participate in the process.
Romney called selecting a political party's nominee for president "among the most critical responsibilities and privileges of citizenship" and said the Utah party move to a caucus "is a bad decision."
"Should that occur, tens of thousands fewer voters will participate in the process," Romney said, describing the party's decision as "indicative of an unfortunate pattern where party leadership seems to reject wide participation in favor of small groups of people making decisions for the rest of us."
The two-time candidate for the White House said that "having participated in presidential election processes nationwide, it is clear to me that the more citizens involved, the better the result."
Support for HB329
He urged lawmakers to take up legislation establishing the primary, HB329, sponsored by Rep. Jon Cox, R-Ephraim, saying "it would truly be unfortunate if Utah citizens were among the few who are unable to have their vote counted."
The bill, which calls for a primary election on March 22, 2016, at a cost of $3 million, was introduced last month but was sent only Tuesday to the House Government Operations Committee for a hearing Thursday. The session ends on March 12.
Cox said he has been trying to coordinate Utah's presidential primary Election Day with other Western states. He said his bill, and especially the appropriation needed to fund a primary, gives the state the option of holding that type of election.
"The party could choose how they want to go about this," Cox said, but state delegates like himself have yet to be heard on the issue.
"Certainly our chairman has indicated where he is on that. But I don't think one person alone speaks for the party," Cox said, adding he prefers a primary. "I think people want a chance to participate."
Reaction from state GOP
The Utah GOP is embroiled in a battle over a compromise reached with lawmakers last year that ended the Count My Vote initiative to replace the state's unique caucus and convention system for selecting nominees with a direct primary.
The party has taken the state to court over the compromise, which continues that system while allowing candidates an alternative route to the primary ballot, through gathering voter signatures.
Evans said the decision to hold a caucus vote to choose the Republican presidential nominee in 2016 is a way to encourage more Utahns to participate in the caucus process and increase turnout.
He said his intent is to allow online voting by registered Republicans on the annual caucus night, also March 22. He also said that is the only vote for the party's presidential nominee that will be recognized by the Republican National Committee.
"None of the presidential candidates are going to sign up for the primary because their votes won't count," the Utah party leader said, calling the election a party function.
"While we appreciate the state wanting to add itself, this is a decision the Republican Party is making," Evans said, admitting that Romney's involvement "does add an interesting twist" to the debate over Count My Vote.
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