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A group of prominent politicos, including former Gov. Mike Leavitt, is lining up financial backers and nearing a decision whether to launch a ballot initiative that could reshape Utah politics by wresting control of the candidate-nominating process from relatively small groups of devout party faithful.
"I think we have to make a decision or it's just going to get too late," said LaVarr Webb, a consultant with the Exoro Group and former top adviser to Leavitt. Webb filed papers last week for the political issues committee Alliance for Good Government last week. "I think we have to make a decision within the next several days."
The plan formulated by Webb, Leavitt, Leavitt's former chief of staff Rich McKeown, and Hinckley Institute of Politics director Kirk Jowers would let candidates circumvent the party convention system by gathering enough signatures to go directly to the primary ballot.
The aim is to restore balance to the nominating process, which Webb said has been captured by the fringes of both parties and produces candidates that don't necessarily represent the average Utahn.
"The system is subject to control by passionate, well-organized groups that don't necessarily represent the mainstream," Webb said.
With many offices lacking serious competition, 3,500 Republican or 2,700 Democratic delegates often effectively have the final say on who will be elected to public office and their views drive public policy.
"The current process disenfranchises, misrepresents and under-represents the voters," the Alliance organizers write in a summary of their proposal. "The problem is especially acute since Utah is a one-party dominated state, so a small group of people can often make decisions that never allow the public a meaningful vote."
The group argues that lawmakers won't make the necessary changes because they have benefited from the current system.
Tea party organizers who see the proposed change as an end-run around a system and a way to push back against committed conservative activists.
"The goal there is to minimize the power of grassroots, take the power out of the hands of ordinary people, and put it back into the hands of the political elite that have money," said Darcy Van Orden, a leader with the group Utah Rising. "We're absolutely looking to fight this effort."
A report released Thursday by the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan think-tank, found that Utah is one of just a few states that still uses a convention system, and the only one that allows parties to preclude a primary election.
Changing the system, the Foundation wrote, could help boost Utah's low voter turnout and moderate public policy.
"Since the views and priorities of delegates can be quite different from other party members or the general public, this is problematic for a representative government," the report said. "If Utah's system were reformed so that a broader array of voters had greater power and influence, policy decisions by elected officials would likely be different, intended to appeal to a wider constituency."
Webb said the Alliance leaders will meet Friday to assess fundraising efforts so far, then will likely decide early next week whether to proceed with the initiative.
The group would need to collect 96,234 signatures across 26 Senate districts by mid-April to place the initiative on the November 2012 ballot.
Webb said the group hopes to have commitments of about $300,000 in funding from 30 to 40 major donors before going ahead with the petition drive. He said the group would likely have to hire signature gatherers to go to rural areas of the state, but could rely on volunteers in urban areas.
Currently, a candidate getting more than 60 percent of the convention delegate vote wins the nomination outright, but otherwise the top two candidates advance to a June primary.
The Alliance proposal would let a candidate collect signatures to get on the ballot, as well. Parties could still designate their preferred choice on the primary ballot.
Matt Lyon, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, said the party hasn't taken an official position on the proposed change, but it encourages public involvement by having open caucuses and primaries Republicans restrict their caucuses and primaries to registered party members.
Ivan DuBois said he believes that low voter turnout in elections is a result of people not understanding how they can get involved in politics, but adding another mechanism confuses the process.
"This is the system and our system is great," DuBois said. "The problem is that people aren't engaged. The idea of a separate process to get on the ballot isn't necessary, it isn't helpful and it won't solve the problem of low voter turnout."
In 2000, a conservative backlash forced Leavitt to face a primary with a political unknown. Four years later, after Leavitt had moved to Washington to serve in the Bush administration, Gov. Olene Walker failed to make it out of the Republican convention because she was not seen as conservative enough for the GOP delegates, despite having broad public support.
Sen. Bob Bennett was defeated at the 2010 Republican Convention by a flood of tea party opposition because he was deemed too moderate. And in the Democratic convention, Rep. Jim Matheson was forced to a primary because he was not liberal enough.
O Read the Alliance for Good Government's summary of their proposal.