Utah voters evenly split on the Count My Vote initiative to rely solely on primary elections

Hearings coming this week on proposal to eliminate caucus-convention system.<br>

(Lennie Mahler | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rich McKeon, executive chair of Count My Vote, 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.

A new poll shows Utahns are evenly divided over the just-resurrected Count My Vote ballot initiative that seeks to let voters choose party nominees solely through a primary election, and dump the state’s traditional caucus-convention system.

Exactly 44 percent support the initiative, and 44 percent oppose it — with 12 percent undecided, according to the Dan Jones & Associates poll for The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

That comes as initiative supporters plan to hold seven public hearings statewide about the proposal Friday and Saturday, a step required before they may start gathering the 113,000 signature required to appear on the ballot.

Support for the initiative in the new poll is far lower support than previous surveys found.

Jones, the pollster, said a key reason is a change in the wording of the poll question. Previous polls gave a direct choice between a primary — where everyone may vote — and a convention, where a relatively few delegates could determine nominees if they won at least 60 percent of the vote. In such two-choice polls, support for the primary option was high.

But Jones said the question was reworded this time to reflect the existing election law, SB54, which the initiative would likely replace. That law allows qualifying for the primary ballot by collecting signatures, through the caucus-convention system, or both.

So the new question reads, “Do you support or oppose a proposed ballot initiative that would replace the caucus-convention system with signature gathering as the sole method for a candidate to appear on a primary election ballot?”

Jones said the new wording making signature collecting “the sole method” seems to worry some voters, who apparently do not want to limit options.

“I’m surprised. I’m really very surprised” at the lower support for the initiative, Jones said. He adds that the numbers could change radically as campaigning for or against the initiative begins and people focus more attention on it.

Rich McKeown, executive co-director of Count My Vote, said, “Consistently over time when wording gave a choice between a primary or the caucus-convention system, Utah voters indicated significant support for a primary — in the 75-85 percent range.”

He believes such support still exists, and he said his group plans to campaign on that direct comparison between a primary and a convention because the Republican Party is seeking to kill SB54 through lawsuits and legislation.

This is the second time the Count My Vote proposal is being pushed. When it appeared likely to qualify for the ballot in 2014 — and polls showed it would likely pass — legislators devised SB54 as a compromise to allow both signature-gathering and the caucus-convention system as routes to the primary ballot.

However, the state Republican Party asserted it was not involved in those negotiations, and has since sued and also tried to dump SB54 by legislation — arguing it interferes with its ability to choose nominees as it wants.

Count My Vote supporters say a small number of extremists often control conventions and nominate candidate who are out of the mainstream — and insist primaries, where everyone can vote, yield better candidates.

They say an example is the recent GOP primary in the 3rd Congressional District race. Ultraconservative Chris Herrod won the GOP convention, where Provo Mayor John Curtis was among those eliminated. But Curtis qualified for the primary anyway by collecting enough signatures — and easily won it when all Republican voters could participate.

However, supporters of the caucus-convention system say the traditional route allows nonwealthy candidates to run because they must target just a few hundred delegates, while the well-to-do have huge advantages in a primary election.

“Many of us were happy with the compromise” through SB54, McKeown said. “But the Republican Party has continually tried to erode it in numerous ways. So we figure it’s time to let the people decide how to conduct elections” and it resurrected the petition drive.

In contrast, Don Guymon, a member of the Republican Central Committee who has helped fight SB54, said that new law “is an infringement on the rights of the Republican Party,” and believes voters will see that and oppose the initiative.

“The caucus-convention system levels the playing field for all candidates,” he said. “In a direct primary, those who have the most money have the best chance to win — so the initiative would allow lobbyists and the rich to control our electoral system.”

McKeown said his group has pledges for just under $1 million to help fund the petition drive.

Some who participated in the new poll said they want to see changes in the system to ensure candidates are more representative.

“People are frustrated by the election system, because they don’t like the people they have to vote for most of the time,” said Jackie Coleman of Riverton. The Republican said she is still undecided on the initiative, however, “because I don’t know enough about it to be definitive.”

Jeremy Petty, a Republican in Syracuse, likes the initiative — even though “I’ve been a delegate before, and I thought the convention system worked pretty well.” But he said it involved too few people. A direct primary “is more representative, and there’s more community involvement. I want to get more people involved.”

Public hearings scheduled for the initiative include three Friday: at 10 a.m. in the Logan Library, 255 N. Main; at 2 p.m. at the Whitmore Library, 2197 E. Ft. Union Blvd, Cottonwood Heights; and at 4 p.m. at Utah Valley University’s Sorensen Student Center, 800 W, University Parkway, Orem.

Three public hearings are scheduled Saturday: at 8 a.m., Noyes Building Founders Hall, Snow College, 150 College Ave. East, Ephraim; 10 a.m. at the Uintah County Library, 204 E. 100 North, Vernal; at 3 p.m. at Utah State University Eastern’s Jennifer Leavitt Student Center, 451 E. 400 North, Price; and at 8 p.m. in Southern Utah University’s Sharwan Smith Student Center, 351 W. University Blvd., Cedar City.