(KCPW News) Back on Tuesday, Republican Sen. Curt Bramble foresaw some contentious debate on his bill SB 54, so he went ahead and scheduled a specific time for Senate floor discussion: Thursday morning, 11 o’clock.
The bill’s controversy comes from a multitude of opinion on how—and whether—to change Utah’s caucus system. The Count My Vote group has been circulating a petition to put a voter initiative on this year’s ballot. The initiative, if passed, would replace the caucuses with what the group argues is a more direct primary-style system.
But Bramble’s SB 54, the group argues, would negate the initiative before it’s ever voted on.
Anticipating the 11 a.m. reading of SB 54, leaders of Count My Vote spoke in the Capitol rotunda less than an hour before Senate floor debate on the bill was to begin.
Rich McKeon, executive chair of Count My Vote, voiced the group’s opposition to SB 54.
“If you read Senate Bill 54, what you find is a bill that is a clever maneuver to circumvent the effect of the people’s right to petition the government,” McKeon said.
That “clever maneuver” McKeon referred to is the key difference between the initiative and SB 54. Sen. Bramble’s bill includes the exact language of the Count My Vote initiative—even typos and grammatical errors—but it adds a second option for Utah’s political parties in case they dislike the Count My Vote proposal.
For his part, Bramble doesn’t see his bill as a workaround for the initiative, should voters approve it. In fact, he thinks direct primaries wouldn’t improve voter participation, a goal of Count My Vote’s initiative.
“The data is clear: the direct primaries don’t impact in a material way citizen participation,” Bramble said. “What impacts citizen participation much greater is competitive races between competing philosophies.”
Bramble said his second option for the parties would do a better job of enfranchising unaffiliated voters, something he argued the Count My Vote Initiative fails to do.
Most senators spoke more or less in favor of SB 54, with one notable exception: Democratic Sen. Patricia Jones. She believes the onerous voter initiative process should be allowed to play itself out before the legislature gets involved.
“The initiative process is extremely difficult. That was made so by this body, by the legislature,” Jones said. “When you have hundreds of people who have worked to gather the signatures, and thousands of people who have signed the petition, I think we need to honor those people who have done their due diligence.”
Jones did agree that the current system isn’t working, noting the underrepresentation of women and minorities in elected office in Utah.
Jones and Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis ended up being the only two senators to vote against SB 54. The bill will be voted on one more time in the Senate before it heads to the House.