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Fillmore • As petitioners launched efforts Saturday to gather signatures to replace party caucuses with direct primaries, Republican leaders huddled in a special meeting to approve overwhelmingly some reforms of the current system hoping that may be enough to save it.
But leaders of Count My Vote led by such luminaries as former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt and former Democratic first lady Norma Matheson say the GOP reforms made Saturday are too little, too late to stop their efforts.
"It doesn't alter our desire to proceed," said Rich McKeown, executive co-director of the group, who noted that captains began gathering signatures Saturday after it finished required hearings and gained state approval for its forms.
"Any efforts to make the caucuses more user-friendly and build participation are good, and we acknowledge and appreciate them," he said. "I feel Count My Vote initiated this discussion." He noted that GOP delegates killed previous attempts to alter caucuses, but it passed only now as Count My Vote seriously threatens to dump the system.
The group contends the current caucus system allows small groups such as tea partyers to pack neighborhood caucuses and move politics to more extreme positions and candidates than the general public wants. It says a direct primary would ensure people supported by true majorities are elected.
Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans defended the caucus system, saying it allows candidates without much money to get on the ballot by campaigning directly with caucus-chosen delegates who narrow the ballot at conventions. "With a primary, those with money who can buy ads have all the power."
The Utah Republican Central Committee met in the old Territorial Statehouse in Fillmore and passed reforms it says will make it easier for more people to participate in neighborhood caucuses to ensure results represent the will of the people. All reforms were approved by large majorities.
"All factions of the party have come together. I'm not sure that's what Mike Leavitt intended" by forming Count My Vote, Evans joked.
Among changes approved include allowing absentee voting for people who are unable to attend evening caucuses. Procedures call for candidates seeking to become delegates to declare in advance. People could print ballots from the Internet, mark them and send them with a trusted friend to the meetings along with photocopies of their driver license to prove identity and residence.
The committee also called for coming up with a way for those in the military or serving religious missions also to participate, but has not figured out how to do so yet.
The committee also added various steps to speed those meetings including allowing attendees to register online to speed now-lengthy check-ins. The committee, however, could not agree on a specific method to speed sometimes lengthy voting at meetings but endorsed finding a way to keep caucuses less than two hours. Evans said the central committee will discuss reforms again in December.
"I don't think it is just a tweaking. I think it is an overhaul of the old system," said Aaron Gabrielson, the Wasatch County GOP chairman, who presented the proposals to the central committee.
McKeown saw them more as small steps toward increasing participation, but said he was happy to see even those taken by a party.
Several elected officials appeared before the central committee to make pitches to keep the current system, but reform it to save it.
"Just because your cow is a little lame, you don't shoot it," said newly appointed Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
He is from rural Sanpete County, and he said he could be the last rural statewide officeholder if the caucus system disappears. He said caucuses and conventions force candidates to pay attention to delegates in every county, but a primary would give power to urban areas and people with money to advertise there.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said he is a fan of the caucus-convention system because it allowed him to beat former Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, with little money by campaigning personally to a small number of state delegates. "It should not be just about who had the most money and name identification," he said.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said the system results in better officeholders by forcing them to listen face to face to delegates and people. "You can't do that if you are just focused on raising money" to advertise in a primary, he said.
Stewart added that caucuses have not allowed any section of the Utah Republican Party such as the tea party to obtain total control, as shown by electing both tea party supporter Sen. Mike Lee and more moderate Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Casey Anderson, who leads Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, a group defending the caucus system, said, "We are thankful for the Republican Party and its diligent work to formally adopt changes that address the issues presented by Count My Vote. There is now no reason to move forward with their initiative to go back to a system that failed in 1937" when Utah moved away from direct primaries.