Gail Miller, the owner of the Larry Miller Group and recently appointed chairwoman of the Count My Vote effort, led the way, giving $100,000.
The Count My Vote drive spearheaded by former governor and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, his longtime chief of staff Rich McKeown and Kirk Jowers of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics is looking to expand voter participation in elections by overhauling Utah's unique method of choosing political candidates.
In the current system, delegates chosen at neighborhood party caucuses pick most candidates at state or county conventions. Count My Vote is looking to offer an alternative path for candidates to get on the ballot either by gathering enough signatures to make it to a primary or, alternatively, going to a system of direct primaries.
"Modernizing our election system is the most important civic issue facing Utahns today," McKeown, Count My Vote co-chairman, said in a statement. "We're thrilled by the overwhelming, broad-based support we've received and will now begin the process of reaching out to more Utahns who want to make their votes count."
Count My Vote organizers say the current system excludes too many people, puts too much power in the hands of a group of strident delegates, drives down turnout and results in public policy that appeals to the political extremes.
The group said it will announce soon whether it will go with the direct primaries or the signature-gathering alternative.
Whichever it pursues, money will not be an obstacle.
Developer Dell Loy Hansen gave $35,000 to the cause, and 13 donors gave $25,000 each: Leavitt; McKeown; Merit Medical; venture capitalist Dinesh Patel; car dealers Mark Miller and Garff Enterprises; developers Roger Boyer, John Price and Kem Gardner; Donald and Susan Lewon, owners of Utah Metal Works; life-sciences investor Gary Crocker; and banker Brent Beesley.
"It's a sign that there is considerable momentum behind it, that there are supporters who are actually willing to put some money behind it, and it's a great start because we're still reasonably early in the process," said Damon Cann, a professor of political science at Utah State University.
James Evans, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, which is working on an alternate plan that would reinforce the current delegate system, has said that everyone knew Count My Vote would have no trouble raising money.
"It was just understood they would have significant financial support from high-net-worth individuals," Evans said last month. "That was always understood, so that's not a surprise."
Both the Republican Party and Democratic Party have voiced their support for the current system, and both have task forces working on proposals to expand voter participation within that framework.
Fred Cox, a former state representative and member of a Republican task force, said he believes money won't matter once voters recognize that either proposal from Count My Vote will work against the average, grassroots candidate.
"I'm not sure if they have half-a-million or a million-and-a-half it will matter, people are still going to want fair elections," Cox said. "They're still going to want the ability to have incumbents replaced. They're still going to want people to not have to be rich and famous to get elected."
Count My Vote will have until next year to gather more than 100,000 signatures from registered voters 10 percent of the total cast in the past presidential election spread across 26 of the 29 state Senate districts.
Cann said initiative and referendum campaigns typically cost about $2 to $3 per signature, which puts the Count My Vote group in a good position to gather the signatures it will need.
"They've got enough money in the bank at this point to run an effective petition drive and get on the ballot and, if they've got those kinds of resources at this point in time, there's a good chance they'll have what it takes to run a formidable campaign when the time comes," Cann said. "I think it sends a pretty strong signal that this is an issue they'll really be able to get in front of voters in the 2014 ballot."
Count My Vote counts big donors
These 15 donors are responsible for 85 percent ($460,000 of $544,300) of the donations given to Count My Vote so far:
$100,000 • Gail Miller, Larry Miller Group owner, Count My Vote chairwoman
$35,000 • Developer Dell Loy Hansen
$25,000 • Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt
Leavitt's longtime chief of staff, Rich McKeown
Venture capitalist Dinesh Patel
Car dealer Mark Miller
Car dealer Garff Enterprises
Developer Roger Boyer
Developer John Price
Developer Kem Gardner
Donald and Susan Lewon, members of the family that owns Utah Metal Works
Life-sciences investor Gary Crocker
Banker Brent Beesley