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Replacing party caucuses with primary elections will empower women voters in Utah, advocates of the Count My Vote initiative said Wednesday.

"I am not a political person, but I feel strongly that women need a say in the political system," business owner Gail Miller said at a news conference in the foyer of a downtown Salt Lake City office building while caucus supporters held anti-Count My Vote signs just outside.

"Count My Vote gives an opportunity to strengthen the state by giving all women a voice," said Miller, who donated $100,000 to the cause last year, according to disclosure records. "An election is simpler and provides more access than complicated, exclusionary caucuses."

One of the female protesters outside, Carol Balaich of Layton, countered that sentiment. "I don't believe that's true. The caucus system gives power to ordinary people," said Balaich. "It's possible for a person to be elected without huge money behind them."

"I've seen candidates in people's living rooms and talked at length to them," added the former delegate to state and Davis County Republican conventions. "Do away with the caucuses and it will just be ads on TV and radio and flyers from people with the money to do it."

But to the Count My Vote supporters, direct primary elections will especially benefit Utah women who often cannot attend evening caucuses because they are largely responsible for taking care of their homes and families.

"If you're not at a certain place at a given time, then you cannot participate in the beginning of the election process," said initiative leader Norma Matheson. "Opening the electoral process is what this initiative is all about."

Proponents maintained the initiative will help women on both sides of the political aisle, and their news-conference contingent reflected bipartisan support.

The group included two of the state's former first ladies — Matheson, a Democrat, and Jackie Leavitt, a Republican.

It also featured state Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, and former Republican legislator Sheryl Allen of Bountiful, as well as Democrat Nichole Dunn, Salt Lake County's deputy mayor under both Peter Corroon and Ben McAdams.

Allen said Count My Vote will make lawmakers more accountable to their district residents. In the caucus system, she said, "legislators pay a lot of attention to what delegates want and far less to their constituents because their voices don't have as much clout."

Outside, Judy Moore of Taylorsville said she never felt excluded by the caucuses, which she attended as a "middle class, stay-at-home mom" simply by getting a baby sitter.

"If something's important to you, you make it work," Moore said, arguing that she once talked face-to-face with Sen. Orrin Hatch at a caucus, but in a primary, "I would be just one of the masses."

Count My Vote backers are trying to collect nearly 102,000 signatures across the state — including 10 percent of voters in 26 of the 29 state Senate districts — to get the measure on the November ballot.

Twitter: @sltribmikeg