- Associated Press - Sunday, March 2, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A group pushing to overhaul Utah’s system for nominating political candidates has worked out a deal with state lawmakers that both sides say enables more participation.

In a deal announced Sunday afternoon, both sides have agreed on new legislation to preserve Utah’s caucus-convention system but allow primary elections as an alternative path to the ballot if a candidate gathers enough signatures.

“This is an elegant solution to this that significantly enhances the capacity of participation by all Utah voters,” Rich McKeown, Count My Vote’s executive chairman, said at a joint news conference at the Capitol on Sunday afternoon.

“There are deep feelings on both sides of this issue,” said Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, who will co-sponsor the compromise bill. “There are several who are frustrated about a perceived loss on one part or another.”

But McCay and others said Sunday that the solution will offer the best of systems and open up primary elections to state’s 665,000 unaffiliated voters.

Lawmakers and the Count My Vote group were squaring off over the caucus system, which Count My Vote argues is difficult to participate in and results in extremist candidates.

Instead, Count My Vote has been working on a ballot initiative to let voters decide whether to move to primary elections.

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

The deal, which was still being negotiated into the weekend, came after legislators waded into the debate.

Provo Sen. Curt Bramble, a Republican, was working on legislation that would require political parties to adopt changes making their nominating process more inclusive or use a direct primary election.

Count My Vote said that proposal could jeopardize their initiative because it uses the same language. If it had passed, it would put their proposal into law - but as a default option.

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.

Count My Vote and Utah legislators say their compromise deal, which would take effect in 2015, will give Utah a dual system akin to the process in Colorado, Connecticut and New Mexico.

Bramble, who is sponsoring the new compromise legislation, said it would allow party delegates to pick their candidates at a nominating convention. The winner or highest vote earners would then square off in a primary race against any party candidates who gathered enough signatures.

Bramble said candidates could pursue both tracks at the same time, but they’d need to gather the required signatures before a nominating convention.

Legislative leaders say they intend to pass the bill sometime in the upcoming week. Count My Vote organizers say they will continue to gather signatures until Gov. Gary Herbert signs the compromise bill.

Count My Vote, which is backed by several high-profile Republicans such as former Gov. Mike Leavitt, announced in late February that they had already gathered more than 100,000 of the 102,000 signatures needed by April 15.

The success of the signature-gathering effort appears to have played a big role in forcing the deal, said Damon Cann, a political scientist at Utah State University.

Cann said it will be interesting to see if the change shifts policy or candidates.

“I suspect that most, if not all incumbents who have any worry at all at where they’re at, I would think would just amass the signatures as an insurance policy,” Cann said.

James Evans, the chairman of the Utah Republican Party, said Sunday evening that he’s grateful legislators are preserving the caucus system.

“We believe that political parties, we have a right to determine how we select our nominees,” Evans said. “That’s inconsistent with the compromise that was reached, but we are supportive of our elected officials because we recognize the difficult decision they’re having to make.”

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

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