- Associated Press - Monday, March 3, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A House committee on Monday unanimously approved a new compromise bill to overhaul Utah’s system for nominating political candidates.

The 9-0 vote from the House Government Operations Committee advances the measure to the full House. Several lawmakers said they’re opposed to the deal but voted in favor to continue discussion.

The deal tells political parties how to select their candidates, which several lawmakers warned could violate First Amendment rights to associate.

A handful of state lawmakers and the Count My Vote group announced the deal, which preserves Utah’s caucus-convention system but allows 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.

Riverton Republican Rep. Daniel McCay, a co-sponsor the compromise bill, said there are people on both sides who feel that they’ve lost something in the deal. But McCay and others said the solution offers the best of both systems while opening up primary elections to state’s 665,000 unaffiliated voters.

Lawmakers and the Count My Vote group had squared 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.

The state’s 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.

Provo Sen. Curt Bramble, a co-sponsor of the 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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