Gehrke: Here comes an initiative to get rid of party nominating conventions and it could revolutionize Utah politics

Count My Vote • The high-powered bipartisan group has raised roughly $1 million to collect enough signatures to get their plan before voters.

They’re back and this time they’re not messing around.

Leaders of Count My Vote are planning to re-launch their ballot initiative next week, this time with the goal of getting rid of party nominating conventions in Utah altogether and making it easier for candidates to get on the primary ballot by gathering signatures.

And it couldn’t come a moment too soon.

For weeks, the leaders of the movement — former Gov. Mike Leavitt, business leader Gail Miller, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and others — have wrestled with whether to pull the trigger.

Lennie Mahler | The Salt Lake Tribune Gail Miller speaks to the media in a press conference announcing a deal between Count My Vote and lawmakers at the Capitol on Sunday, March 2, 2014.

Surely the decision was made easier when they rounded up commitments of about $1 million that they’ll use to help gather more than 113,000 signatures to put the proposal on the ballot next year.

In reality, the actions of the state Republican Party made it impossible for them to walk away.

Those Republicans who think a small group of delegates should exercise the power to choose the party’s nominees will howl that Count My Vote is breaking its 2014 deal with the Legislature. That agreement created a dual track, where candidates could seek the nomination through the traditional convention route or they could collect signatures and go directly to the primary.

Convention loyalists have taken to social media, amid rumors of Count My Vote’s renewed effort, saying, “This is why you don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

Last Saturday, we saw how far they would go to cling to their power, using stall tactics during a marathon party meeting in a desperate attempt to keep the GOP from dropping a nonsensical lawsuit over the compromise that has left the party more than $300,000 in debt.

And earlier this year, Republicans in the Utah House voted decisively to let parties decide whether to prohibit candidates from going to the convention and gathering signatures. Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the sponsor of the bill, considered that to be an important enough part of the SB54 compromise that he killed the bill on the last night of the session.

Other bills have sought to mount a more direct attack on SB54, but have been beaten back.

It certainly looks like the bipartisan group behind Count My Vote screwed up — they trusted the Legislature.

So now it’s ridiculous to think they would simply sit on the sidelines and watch the Legislature demolish what they had built, especially now that we’re finally seeing the benefits of that signature path.

Exhibit A: August’s 3rd District congressional primary where Provo Mayor John Curtis trounced Chris Herrod, the darling of the delegates, but not mainstream GOP voters. Roughly seven out of 10 wanted someone other than Herrod.

You want more proof the Legislature doesn’t represent voters? Look at all of the other initiatives vying to be on the ballot — medical marijuana, independent redistricting, better education funding and potentially an initiative to expand Medicaid to get health care for low-income Utahns.

Every one of those is an issue that has broad public support and every one of them is an issue the Legislature has been afraid to address because they answer to a few dozen delegates instead of the voters.

Surveys by the nonpartisan Utah Foundation have demonstrated that delegates from both parties are far more strident than the average Utahn and that women, in the GOP in particular, are vastly under-represented.

Under the old system, delegates were the only people who mattered, so ditching the signature path when the Legislature meets again in January would make those delegates very happy — which also benefits the lawmakers they would elect.

Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he would veto legislation to repeal the 2014 compromise, probably because the delegates nearly ended his political career last year, despite the governor’s sky-high approval rating.

That is reassuring. But the benefits of the direct primaries are becoming evident. And Count My Vote has learned from recent elections, making changes to their initiative that will make it even better.

The new initiative will lower the thresholds, requiring all candidates to get signatures from 1.5 percent of registered voters, meaning more candidates on the ballot and more primaries.

They also address what to do if there isn’t a clear winner in a primary, requiring a vote-by-mail runoff among the top two candidates in primaries where a candidate doesn’t get more than 35 percent of the vote. That means you won’t have a candidate slip in just because there was a crowded field.

There is some risk involved in pushing the initiative this year. If it fails, the people will have spoken and opponents will gut the primary process.

But if it passes, Count My Vote — along with the independent redistricting commission initiative — would revolutionize our democracy and provide meaningful representation to the broad majority of reasonable, mainstream Utahns whose viewpoints have been neglected for far too long.