An on-again, off-again deal between organizers of the Count My Vote ballot initiative and state legislators is back on, after a false start, a cancelled news conference and a day of negotiations Saturday.
In the end, the deal struck to overhaul Utah’s system of nominating candidates is much the same as it stood Friday night: Count My Vote will get a system where candidates for office could gather signatures to get on a primary ballot, rather than going through the parties’ caucuses and conventions.
And, once the governor signs the bill, Count My Vote will suspend its effort to gather signatures to put a measure on the ballot to supplant the party caucuses and conventions with a system of direct primaries where candidates could gather signatures and vie for the party nomination.
"We have reached an agreement on landmark election reforms that promise to improve citizen engagement in Utah’s electoral process," leaders of the Utah Legislature and the Count My Vote effort said in a joint statement.
"Leaders in the Utah House and Senate have announced their intent to act on the legislation this week. Count My Vote will continue gathering signatures until the bill is passed and signed by the governor," the statement said.
A news conference is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Sunday with lawmakers and leaders of Count My Vote. An earlier news conference, scheduled for Saturday morning, was scrubbed at the last minute over disagreements over details of the bill language.
The once-again-agreed-upon bill, a substitute version of SB54, is scheduled to go before a House committee Monday morning.
The agreement may put some legislators in a difficult spot, as they are just weeks from their party conventions, where they will face delegates who will decide the candidates’ political fate. There has been widespread opposition from Republican delegates, who say the caucus-convention system produces the best results.
"We are grateful for anything that stops the petition from moving forward," said James Humphreys, a spokesman for Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, a group opposed to the Count My Vote effort. "We are thankful to all of the hard work and dedication of our all volunteer force and the countless hours and financial support they have brought to our cause."
Count My Vote, which had spent more than $1 million gathering more than 100,000 signatures to put its measure on the ballot, had already notified supporters Friday night of the agreement that would end the initiative that was years in the making and formally launched in September.
Under the new framework for SB54, political parties would be able to keep their existing caucus system — where delegates chosen at neighborhood caucuses generally choose nominees at the party conventions — but would also have been required to accept an alternative path to the primary ballot.
That alternative would entail allowing a candidate who gathers enough signatures to appear on the primary ballot. A statewide candidate would need to gather 28,000; a candidate for one of the four congressional districts would need one-fourth that number; a state Senate candidate would need to collect 2,000 signatures; and a House candidate would need 1,000.
The signatures could come from any registered voters.
The parties would also have to allow unaffiliated voters to vote in their primaries and allow absentee voting for delegates at the party convention, according to sources familiar with the negotiated bill.
The agreement averts a potential high-profile showdown between Count My Vote and Utah legislators over Provo Republican Sen. Curt Bramble’s original SB54.
That bill would have incorporated Count My Vote’s direct primary language, but also let parties get around the primaries if they complied with some requirements — essentially making the Count My Vote initiative meaningless.
Count My Vote had publicly denounced Bramble’s bill, suggesting it is a cynical attempt to suppress the ability of voters to make their voice heard through a ballot initiative.
They had rolled out endorsements from former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and longtime U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, who also gave the effort $50,000 from his political action committee, records show.
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