BOUNTIFUL - As the debate over whether Utah should abandon its caucus system intensifies, people on both sides of the issue are digging in.
Two seasoned veterans of Davis County’s political scene emphatically claim people don’t want the caucus system to continue, while other prominent Davis County Republicans disagree.
The initiative is sponsored by a group called Alliance for Good Government and is called Count My Vote (CMV).
“We need a one-person, one-vote system," said Sheryl Allen. She was a member of the state House of Representatives for 16 years.
Under the proposal, voters would have the option to directly vote for candidates in a primary - rather than having the slate narrowed down by delegates to caucus meetings.
For an example, Allen points out that in the last election, none of the incumbents in Davis County had any opposition from their own (Republican) Party.
"As an elected official, I learned to respect the voters. This (caucus system) empowers delegates," she said.
Davis County GOP Chairman Phill Wright has a different point of view.
Speaking of the proposal to install a direct primary, Wright told the Clipper, "It's flawed, and it encroaches on a party's ability to act for itself."
Former Davis County GOP chair Kris Kimball echoed Wright's sentiment, saying, "A direct primary takes the individual out of the process, and leaves the electoral power in the hands of candidates and special interest groups with the most money."
Retired educator Beth Beck doesn't think that's the case, suggesting that the caucus system gives delegates a lot of power, to the point "they're elitist."
"They feel like they have more rights than their neighbors." said Beck.
"Beth and I have been delegates many times. Input to delegates is minuscule (from voters)," Allen said.
Wright said a direct primary would further distance candidates from voters.
"If you have a direct primary, rural areas of Utah would never see another candidate campaigning in their area," said Wright. "Those candidates would stick to big metropolitan areas."
"You don’t get much input from your neighbors, and delegates vote in secret," Allen said. "That’s not true of elected officials, who also get lots of input. There’s a significant difference in accountability," as elected officials’ votes are recorded.
Not true, suggests Wright, who estimated that 125,000 people participated in the 2012 caucuses. "Our caucus system vets candidates. A direct primary will allow political cronyism to destroy our state."
Video published by Protect Our Neighborhood Elections group
Allen blasted the idea that only wealthy people will be able to run for office if the caucus system is changed.
She cited the example of several candidates who have spent "way less" in direct primaries. For example, Bountiful Mayor Randy Lewis, who originally was opposed by Beth Holbrook, spent $20,000. Others spent far less.
Kimball suggested that the CMV initiative (with backing from prominent GOP players like former Utah Governor and Bush Cabinet member Mike Leavitt) was born after the ouster of long-time US Senator Bob Bennett, who was eventually unseated by Mike Lee, whose delegates flooded the 2010 GOP caucuses.
"They saw a group of people they couldn't control," said Kimball, who speculated that a direct primary would all but eliminate the chances of future challengers against incumbents.
Under the current system, delegates vote for a slate of candidates, including about 10 for county positions alone, plus state candidates, Beck said.
She called the whole system "hogwash," especially the idea that delegates are generally well informed.
"Count My Vote is a choice. All it does is put this on the ballot," Allen said of the initiative.
To get CMV on the November ballot by the April 15 deadline, 103,000 signatures are needed. That must include 10 percent of registered voters from 26 of the state’s 29 counties.
The CMV petition initiative came under recent fire over a recording that has been produced and shared via YouTube (see above) by the Protect Our Neighborhood Elections (PONE) group, which is co-chaired by Kimball.
The recording happened during an exchange with a CMV signature gatherer and a woman named Kim Weiss.
During the exchange, the signature gatherer tells Weiss the petition is to ensure that schools aren't able to throw food away for kids who can't pay.
PONE filed a complaint with the Lt. Governor’s office over the incident, suggesting that the CMV petition process has not been handled honestly.
The complaint cited other examples of alleged CMV misconduct, including an email distributed by a Washington County School District employee that promoted CMV in December.
State election officials will have to certify that signatures and voting records are valid before the petition can be placed on the ballot.
Caucuses effectively mean candidates have to work to please the delegates. There may be 120 delegates and with 60 percent vote needed for a candidate to get on the ballot, that’s only about 75 delegates needed, Beck said.
“Utah’s Constitution gives the right for an initiative. But the Utah Legislature has made it really hard” to get enough signatures, etc., Allen said.
Kimball says voters shouldn't condemn the caucus system until they give it a try, which they can do on March 20 when the GOP meetings will take place (the Democrats will meet on March 18).
"Before you throw it out, experience it," said Kimball.
In the meantime, CMV folks will continue to staff tables at the Megaplex Theatre in Centerville, and elsewhere.