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Former Gov. Leavitt: Bill on caucus system denies Utahns’ right

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| Tribune file photo Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, is in line to take the helm of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt says Sen. Curt Bramble’s bill to pre-empt the Count My Vote initiative is a “clever” attempt to trample Utahns’ constitutional right to petition their government, as the group hit the airwaves Tuesday with advertisements opposing the legislation.

For months, Count My Vote has been gathering signatures — nearly 100,000 so far — to put an initiative on the November ballot that would supplant Utah’s system of nominating candidates with direct primaries.

The Utah Constitution gives voters the right to the initiative process. But now that the group is close to reaching its goal, Leavitt said, “suddenly the Legislature steps in to pass a law that pre-empts the outcome, and that’s just wrong.”

Count My Vote launched radio ads and a social-media campaign Tuesday to stir up opposition to Bramble’s bill, which is scheduled for debate Thursday morning in the Senate. It received unanimous support when it passed a Senate committee last week.

Bramble’s SB54 would essentially make the Count My Vote ballot initiative moot, giving the political parties a way to work around the initiative, whether or not it passes. If the parties agree to make certain changes to their caucus and convention procedures, they can keep the status quo. If they don’t, direct primaries become the default.

“They’ve nullified it in advance,” said Leavitt. “In this case, [legislators] have used clever legislating to essentially block a matter that could have profound impact on them. And we would hope that they would view the fact that it has a direct impact on how they get elected as a reason to be restrained.”

Bramble contends legislators shouldn’t lose their role as lawmakers just because a group says it wants to push an initiative.

“I respectfully disagree with Governor Leavitt’s analysis,” Bramble said. “They don’t have the signatures yet. It hasn’t gone to a vote yet and the Legislature is in session now.”

Bramble’s bill would force parties to comply with four conditions:

• People who couldn’t attend their neighborhood caucuses to elect delegates would have to be given a two-day window to cast absentee ballots.

• Delegates chosen at the caucuses would have to be able to vote absentee or backup delegates would have to be chosen in case delegates can’t attend the convention.

• The top two vote-getters at conventions would have to go to a primary if neither gets 65 percent of the delegate vote at convention, up from the current standard of 60 percent.

• Party primaries would have to be open to unaffiliated voters.

Bramble said that last year Count My Vote told the parties it would not shelve its initiative if the threshold was raised to 66 percent. His SB54 goes much further, he said.

“I don’t think the changes that Senator Bramble’s bill proposes are negative. I think they would be an improvement,” Leavitt said. “But it’s not what 100,000 people are asking for. The issue here isn’t his proposal. The issue here is that his proposal blocks the people from having their voice heard in a way that is constitutionally protected.”

James Humphreys, spokesman for the pro-caucus group Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, said it’s presumptuous for Leavitt and Count My Vote to claim to represent the will of the people.

“I find it amusing that Governor Leavitt and the 30 people who have spent over $800,000 of their personal money to buy our election system and have not proven that they have the thousands of signature they claim … think they’re speaking for the will of the people, when this has never been approved on a ballot or passed,” Humphreys said.

“The Legislature is doing its job in trying to improve the system that we have because of concerns raised by individuals like Governor Leavitt,” Humphreys said.

“And to have Count My Vote and its backers ignoring the validity of the legislation to accommodate their needs is self-serving and arrogant.”

Bramble says the Count My Vote initiative is fraught with “significant” flaws in its drafting, ranging from punctuation errors to contradictory language.

But he incorporated the initiative language — complete with the errors — so that if the measure passes, it will not invalidate his legislation.

“He has cleverly put the language of the initiative word for word into the statute and then created a set of conditions that eliminate the impact,” Leavitt said.

“That type of legislating should not and, in the long run, will not prevent the will of the people exercising a constitutional right.”

Leavitt also said it seems clear that Bramble’s measure is meant to curry favor with delegates who support keeping the caucus system and have tremendous clout in determining who gets the party’s nomination.

Bramble said he would be better off with direct primaries, a sentiment shared by Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.

“It’s easier for me to raise money. I have name recognition in my district,” Niederhauser said. “Having a convention system gives the common person an opportunity to run. I hate to see that being done away with.”

rgehrke@sltrib.com

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