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Critics launched attacks Friday on two separate fronts against the Count My Vote ballot initiative, which seeks to dump political-party caucuses and conventions for a direct primary.
First, the Senate voted 22-4 to approve and send to the House SB54 that would nullify the initiative as long as parties tweak their caucus and convention system.
Second, an opposition group filed a complaint with the lieutenant governor seeking to disqualify most of the 100,000 signatures collected so far by Count My Vote. It alleged numerous violations, including lying to voters about what they are signing.
Amid the attacks, Rich McKeown, co-chairman of Count My Vote, said he expected stiff opposition from parties and incumbents, "and that is what we are seeing. They will do whatever they must" to stop the initiative.
Count My Vote contends the current system elects politicians who are more extreme than most Utahns, because small groups can more easily control lightly attended caucuses that elect convention delegates. It says a direct primary would change that, but parties contend that would favor the rich.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, called his SB54 a well-balanced compromise between what parties and Count My Vote seek.
It would create a direct primary as sought by Count My Vote, but only if parties choose not to tweak their rules to allow absentee voting at caucuses and conventions and require candidates to get 65 percent of the delegate vote to win a party nomination without a primary.
Bramble said the bill would provide "greater opportunity for the citizens of Utah to participate in the electoral process," mainly because it would allow unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries.
Currently, the Republican Party allows only registered Republicans to vote in its primary, although the Utah Democratic Party allows unaffiliated voters as well as registered Democrats.
Bramble insisted his bill would not make the petition drive moot. "If the citizens vote for the initiative in November, if it gets on the ballot, that would be a reaffirmation that they would like a direct primary and this body would be supporting that, with one addition."
But that one addition is huge: parties could avert direct primaries by adopting the conditions in Bramble's bill.
McKeown said SB54 "is not intended as a serious solution, but is a clever maneuver intended to circumvent the right of the people to petition the government."
He said it shows that legislators, elected through the present system, "can and will change the rules if people get too close" to making changes incumbents dislike. He said his group will continue to collect signatures, and is close to the required 102,000.
Protect Our Neighborhood Elections a group opposing Count My Vote filed complaints with the lieutenant governor Friday seeking to disqualify most of the signatures it has collected.
Its major allegation is that paid signature gatherers are lying to voters to trick them into signing, and it presented recordings and photos that it said provide proof.
It released a recording made by Kim Weis of Bear River, where a solicitor tells her she is actually gathering signatures to prevent schools from dumping lunches of students who could not afford to pay for them taking advantage of recent news stories on that.
"It is despicable to lie and mislead individuals signing their petition," said James Humphreys, spokesman for Protect Our Neighborhood Elections.
Bryce Christensen, a University of Utah student, also told a news conference he was told by a paid signature gatherer he was pushing the petition because it would allow unaffiliated voters to participate in the Republican primary. It does not do that.
Humphreys said the group also has evidence that Count My Vote left petitions unattended at stores, libraries and other public places.
So it cannot verify, as required, that it ensured petitions were signed by the actual people whose names appear.
Additionally, he said one of the people overseeing paid signature gatherers had been convicted in other states of election fraud.
The group also alleged donors to the initiative have not filed all required disclosure forms, and said Count My Vote illegally used people from out of state as professional signature gatherers.
McKeown declined to comment on the allegations because he has not yet seen them.
He said Count My Vote does use paid signature gatherers, but said they are instructed to follow the law.