- Associated Press - Monday, March 10, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Gov. Gary Herbert gave his official approval Monday to a deal between Utah legislators and a group pushing to overhaul the state’s system for nominating political candidates.

Herbert put his signature on a measure that preserves Utah’s caucus-convention system but allows primary elections as an alternative path to the ballot if a candidate gathers enough signatures.

It will go into effect in 2015.

The approval from Herbert, a Republican, comes after the measure quickly moved through the Legislature last week. The Senate voted 21-7 to approve it and the House voted 49-20 in favor of the bill.

Some Republicans voted against the measure in both chambers, citing opposition to legislation that tells political parties how to operate.

The compromise was triggered by an initiative push from a group called Count My Vote that proposed dumping the caucus system entirely in favor of primaries. The group argued that the caucus system is difficult to participate in and results in extremist candidates. They had backing from several high-profile Republicans such as former Gov. Mike Leavitt and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

That group was gathering signatures ahead of an April deadline to get it on the ballot when legislators waded into the debate with another proposal from Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, that further complicated the landscape.

All sides began negotiations about 10 days ago, and they hammered out a deal that was announced March 2 and handed it off to the Legislature the next day.

Backers of the new solution say it will offer the best of both systems and open up primary elections to state’s 665,000 unaffiliated voters.

Count My Vote and Utah legislators say the new rules will give Utah a dual system akin to the process in Colorado, Connecticut and New Mexico.

Taylor Morgan, a director for Count My Vote, said Monday that Herbert’s signature on the measure brings the initiative to a close.

“We’re thrilled with the legislation,” he said, adding that the group’s goals of clearing a path to direct primaries and opening elections to all Utah voters have been reached.

But not everyone is pleased with the outcome. Utah Republican Party chairman James Evans said Monday the party believes it should be able to select nominees how they choose. He said they are exploring whether to take legal action against the state.

He said the party appreciates the Legislature’s efforts to find a solution that addressed their concerns, but explained that they declined to participate in the talks that lead to the compromise to avoid “negotiating away” their position should the case end up in court.

Utah’s Democratic Party has remained neutral on the issue.

Count My Vote previously said it would continue gathering signatures for the ballot initiative unless Herbert signed the legislation.

The organization wasn’t immediately available for comment Monday.

The current system of local caucus meetings and a nominating convention is only used by a handful of other states. Under Utah’s system, a candidate can avoid a primary race if he or she gets 60 percent of the votes from delegates at the conventions. If no candidate reaches the 60 percent threshold, the top two candidates compete in a primary.

Supporters of the system, including many lawmakers, argue it requires politicians to win over delegates in person rather than relying on fundraising and campaign advertisements.

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Online:

SB 54: http://1.usa.gov/1dpokmV

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