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Ballot effort to reform Utah elections is a 'Go'

Published August 29, 2013 6:50 pm

Politics • Gail Miller to lead group seeking a ballot initiative to reform elections.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

An effort to overhaul Utah's election system will go ahead with a push for a ballot initiative, as the Count My Vote group has begun naming its leaders and hiring staff and is continuing an aggressive fundraising push.

The group, on Thursday, named Gail Miller, widow of the late Larry Miller and owner of the companies that bear his name, as its first chairwoman. Others are expected to be announced later.

"She brings a remarkable story of family legacy and her desire to carry that on as a matter of legacy and also to personally be involved," said Rich McKeown, one of the organizers of the Count My Vote effort. "Her efforts, I think, are pretty significant, given her remarkable stature in the community."

Count My Vote is seeking to change the way candidates get on the primary ballot, based on the belief that the current system — where delegates chosen at party caucuses choose the vast majority of candidates — is exclusionary, restrictive, drives down voter participation and gives the most strident in both parties undue influence over public policy.

Leavitt & Co. • The group was formed by former governor and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt; McKeown, who served as Leavitt's chief of staff; and Kirk Jowers, who is director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

In addition to naming Miller to the group's leadership team, Count My Vote has hired two executive directors and has launched a website — http://www.countmyvoteutah.org.

McKeown acknowledged that the formation of a leadership team, hiring of staff and aggressive fundraising are all indicators that the group is focused on putting a reform initiative on the ballot, although the specifics are still in flux.

The group has discussed pushing for direct primaries, where top vote-getters could advance to the November election, or a hybrid of the existing system, where delegates could essentially endorse a candidate, but others could still get on the primary ballot by gathering sufficient signatures.

James Evans, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, which has voiced its support for the current system, said how the party and rank-and-file Republicans react to the initiative effort probably depends on what course Count My Vote takes.

"I think we're all unclear on exactly what it is they're going to put forth," he said. "If what they put forth is an effort to eliminate caucuses, I think that would result in a significant response from ordinary Republicans, because that would be seen as being fundamentally unfair."

The GOP has a committee working on recommendations to strengthen the caucus system, which they will discuss when party leaders gather next month.

So far, Count My Vote has reported raising $70,000 but is expected to report significantly more when it files its required disclosure next week.

"I think we're pretty encouraged that we can get it done. The response has been good. We're feeling good about the involvement," McKeown said. "We're clearly in a period where we're going to build out this organization in the context of broad-based [support]."

Gail Miller • Miller is a fixture in the community, and the Larry Miller Group of Companies, which she heads, is a prominent donor to Republican political causes, giving more than $1 million to support Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and about $70,000 more to Utah political candidates.

"I believe we become a stronger nation when our citizens participate in elections and are engaged with their government," Miller said in a statement. "My support of Count My Vote carries on our legacy of passion and participation."

Evans said he expects the group will be able to raise however much money it needs to run its effort.

"It was just understood they would have significant financial support from high-net-worth individuals," he said. "That was always understood, so that's not a surprise."

Count My Vote has also hired Taylor Morgan and Lindsay Zizumbo as executive directors of the effort. Morgan is a former elections specialist for Lt. Gov Greg Bell and staffed Gov. Jon Huntsman's Commission on Strengthening Democracy. Zizumbo is a former campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson and was field director for Utahns For Public Education, which led a successful ballot effort to repeal Utah's school vouchers law.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke