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The Count My Vote initiative got some big-name support from perhaps the most popular political figure in the state, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who also criticized efforts by the Legislature to preempt the initiative, saying it "feels very wrong."
"I want to tell you that Ann and I are supporters. Since the election, I've been pushing hard for states to move to direct primaries," Romney wrote in an email last week to former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt. "Caucus/convention systems exclude so many people: they rarely produce a result that reflects how rank-and-file Republicans feel. I think that's true for Democrats, too."
Romney had previously expressed his opposition to the use of caucuses to nominate candidates nationally, but the email marks the first time that the former Massachusetts governor and Salt Lake Olympic boss directly endorsed Count My Vote's effort to replace caucuses with direct primaries.
The Legislature, however, is considering legislation that would give political parties a wide path around the Count My Vote primaries, whether the initiative passes or fails in November.
In his email, Romney said he was surprised lawmakers would meddle with a voter initiative.
"It seems to me if voters use a constitutional process to formally demand a chance to vote on something, the legislature shouldn't interfere," Romney wrote. "I'm especially surprised legislators would interfere with a ballot measure defining how they get elected. It smacks of self-interest and feels very wrong."
In an interview, Leavitt said, "It means that Mitt Romney feels like most Utah people demanding a chance to vote and it's disrespectful for legislators to nullify that in a way that preempts" the public's right to vote.
James Humphreys, a spokesman for the group Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, which is opposing Count My Vote, said it's predictable that Leavitt and Count My Vote again turns to their wealthy friends.
"While I respect Mr. Romney, it is no surprise that a man who could not win by walking neighborhoods in Iowa would not like the convention process," Humphreys said. "Being accountable to average people is hard for those who only want to invest money and not their time to really serve the voters they claim to represent."
Indeed, Romney lost presidential contests in caucus states like Iowa and Colorado, but won caucuses in Nevada and Maine. He generally fared better in primaries than caucuses.
Romney has posted two of the strongest electoral showings in Utah history, winning almost 90 percent of the vote in Utah's 2008 presidential primary and capturing more than 93 percent of the vote four years later, although he had already essentially clinched the party's nomination at that point.
"I'll encourage our family to sign the petition and you can count on us to help financially," Romney wrote.
Count My Vote is in the process of gathering nearly 102,000 signatures on petitions to put a proposal on the November ballot that would require a party's nominee to be chosen at the ballot box through direct primaries. Currently, party members choose delegates at neighborhood caucuses and the delegates typically pick nominees at party conventions.
Polls have shown that two-thirds or more of Utah voters support changing the caucus-convention system.
However, a bill making its way through the Legislature SB54, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo would let parties keep the caucus-convention system if they make four changes: Allow absentee voting at the party caucuses;
• Allow absentee voting for delegates or voting by alternate delegates at the party convention;
• Raise the level of delegate support needed to avoid a party primary from 60 percent to 65 percent;
• Let unaffiliated voters vote in any primary.
Bramble calls the measure a "principled compromise" between Count My Vote and the caucus defenders, and it breezed through the Senate last week.
Gov. Gary Herbert has urged legislators to be careful about doing anything to derail the initiative, saying it could be seen as "gaming the system to thwart the will of the people." He left open the possibility of vetoing the bill if it reaches his desk.
Last week, the group Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, which is opposing Count My Vote, filed a complaint with the lieutenant governor's office, alleging that Count My Vote's paid petition gatherers are lying to voters about what the petition is about and tricking them into signing onto the effort. The complaint is under review.
Read Mitt Romney's email
Below is the text of an email that former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney sent on Feb. 19 to former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, expressing his support for the Count My Vote initiative seeking to change Utah's system for nominating candidates.
Subject: Morning thoughts
Thanks for bringing me up to date on the Count My Vote initiative. I want to tell you that Ann and I are supporters. Since the election, I've been pushing hard for states to move to direct primaries. Caucus/convention systems exclude so many people: they rarely produce a result that reflects how rank and file Republicans feel. I think that's true for Democrats too.
Yesterday I read about the Utah Legislature trying to pass a bill that would nullify, in advance, the Count My Vote proposal. I'm quite surprised legislators would consider doing that on a Voter Initiative. It seems to me if voters use a constitutional process to formally demand a chance to vote on something, the legislature shouldn't interfere. I'm especially surprised legislators would interfere with a ballot measure defining how they get elected. It smacks of self-interest and feels very wrong.
I'll encourage our family to sign the petition and you can count on us to help financially.