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A bill that would change Utah's process for nominating political candidates and nullify the Count My Vote ballot initiative in the process won broad support in the Senate on Thursday.
Sponsoring Sen. Curt Bramble said SB54 is a "principled compromise" between those who defend the current caucus system of nominating candidates, and Count My Vote organizers, who are gathering signatures to put a measure on the ballot that would replace the caucus system with direct primaries.
But Count My Vote organizers say Bramble is preemptively trying to nullify the initiative, and Rich McKeown, co-chairman of the group, said it opposed "manipulative efforts that disregard the will of the people."
The group already has been running radio ads and an online social-media campaign seeking to stir opposition to SB54. McKeown said in the coming weeks it will roll out tens of thousands of dollars worth of radio and TV ads, donated to the cause by station owners and those with access to media resources.
Bramble's bill incorporates all of the language of the Count My Vote initiative including typos and grammatical errors. That way, if SB54 passes, it wouldn't matter whether Count My Vote gets the roughly 102,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot or whether it is approved by voters in November.
SB54 gives the parties a "get-out-of-jail-free" card, letting them avoid the direct primaries in the Count My Vote initiative if they allow absentee voting at the party caucuses and conventions and requires candidates to get 65 percent of the delegate vote to win a party nomination without a primary.
Bramble denies his bill would, in any way, make the Count My Vote initiative moot.
"This does nothing to change the voice of the people in the process," he argued Thursday. "The voice of the people is as strong if this bill passes as it would be if this bill fails."
That's because, Bramble said, voters could still vote to pass or defeat Count My Vote to express their will.
"The real intent of this legislation is the original intent of Count My Vote. It's to increase citizen participation," said Bramble, R-Provo. "I thought that was what the point of Count My vote was."
McKeown, however, said legislators are acting in their own self-interest, engendering support from the delegates who will largely decide their political fate in just a few months.
"What we are seeing here is a small group of elected officials that say, 'We know better and what we're going to do is change the rules,'" McKeown said. "And it's filled with conflict [of interest] and the conflict is that they're about ready to go out and face the caucus and when they do they will be saying to the public, 'We are much more influenced by what the delegates say than what the people say.'"
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said the contention that the Legislature is silencing the people by passing SB54 "is really silly and just shows a misunderstanding of how the political process works."
Twenty-six of the 29 senators voted to move ahead with Bramble's bill, sending it to a final vote, possibly as early as tomorrow but likely not until next week.
The House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said he has some work to do to get House colleagues on board and expects there may be some changes to the bill when it comes to that body.
Gov. Gary Herbert cautioned legislators Wednesday not to play games with the initiative process, warning that there could be a tremendous public backlash if legislators were seen as silencing the will of the people, and saying he may veto the bill.
"If it passes we plug ahead," said McKeown. "There are legal issues that will be involved as we reconcile this and we anticipate SB54, if it passes, will be one of the obstacles we need to overcome."
McKeown said the group is approaching the nearly 102,000 signatures Count My Vote needs to get on the ballot and anticipates it will easily make the April 15 deadline.
If legislators want to refine the Count My Vote language, McKeown said, the time to do it would be next year, after it passes, instead of anticipating the outcome and acting preemptively.
Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, a former Senate president and supporter of the Count My Vote initiative, said in an interview the Senate should stand down and respect the will of the voters.
"The Legislature can come back and resolve any problems," Beattie said. "They'll have the last word but the reason for the initiative is just to provide another alternative to the ballot. That's all this is about."