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The Utah Legislature may insert itself into a heated debate over how the state chooses its political candidates and could make a voter initiative on the topic moot.

The group Count My Vote is driving toward putting an initiative on the November ballot that would require parties to choose their candidates through direct primaries, essentially doing away with Utah's current system of caucuses and conventions.

Defenders of the caucus system are firing back, trying to paint Count My Vote as a big-money attempt to seize control from activists in both parties.

On Tuesday, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, joined the fray, unveiling legislation that would force the parties to embrace significant reforms aimed at increasing participation in the nominating process. If the parties refuse, the nominees for office would be chosen in open primaries, marginalizing the parties' role.

Bramble's bill requires the parties to take four steps.

First, when delegates for the party conventions are chosen at neighborhood caucuses, the parties would have to have some way to accept absentee or proxy votes, so those who can't attend the meetings can still vote.

Second, alternate delegates would have to be picked in case a delegate can't attend the convention where the nominees are selected.

Third, if a candidate doesn't get at least 65 percent of the delegate vote at convention — up from the current threshold of 60 percent — the top two would square off in a primary.

Finally, all primary elections would have to be open to unaffiliated voters. Currently, Democratic primaries are open, but the Republican Party closes its elections.

If the parties comply with the requirements, they can continue to nominate their candidates for office. If they don't, Bramble's bill includes the language of the proposal put forward by the Count My Vote group and says the direct-primary process the group proposes will be used to choose party nominees.

"Each one of these is specifically targeted at the challenge of greater citizen participation in the process," Bramble said.

Founders of the Count My Vote effort, including former Gov. Mike Leavitt, argue the current caucus-convention system for choosing nominees excludes those who can't attend their once-per-election caucuses; it drives down voter turnout and participation; and yields candidates who do not reflect the mainstream.

Count My Vote has raised more than $800,000 and is in the process of gathering more than 100,000 signatures to try to put a measure on the ballot that would require parties to hold direct primary elections to choose candidates. As of last month, the group had gathered more than 40,000 signatures.

On Tuesday, Rich McKeown, a co-chairman of the organization, said the group is committed to the ballot drive.

"We are unequivocal in moving forward on this," McKeown said.

McKeown said the group tried to work with the Legislature and the parties to correct problems with the process last year, and they refused, so they sought to take the issue to voters.

"With the response to this in the public and those who have donated and those who have signed [the petition], they have inspired us that they don't want to stop halfway and the direct primary is the way to go and it's time to do this and change course," McKeown said. "It would really be inappropriate for us to ignore the voice of the thousands and thousands of people who have signed the petition."

So what if Bramble's bill and the Count My Vote initiative both pass?

If Bramble's bill passes, he says it wouldn't matter what happens with the Count My Vote initiative, because the language of the initiative mandating direct primaries would already be in the code, along with the requirements on the parties to avoid the direct primaries.

"This is not trying to defeat Count My Vote. What this is trying to do is improve the process," Bramble said.

James Evans, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, didn't endorse Bramble's bill, but said he was looking for a proposal that could unite battling factions in his party.

"We will not be a dominant party without the business community and we will not be the dominant party without the grassroots, so my commitment is to finding a solution that everyone can agree on," he said.

Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, who is also a state senator, said he hadn't read Bramble's bill carefully but is, "in a general way supportive of Senator Bramble's bill. I think he has some innovative ideas." —

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