By Ryan Joyner
SALT LAKE CITY — A BYU political science professor said neither the Count My Vote ballot initiative or a proposed senate bill crafted in response guarantee increased voter turnout — something both camps say is their proposals’ end goal.
While the buzz on Utah’s Capitol Hill has focused on the Count My Vote ballot initiative approach or the alternative SB54, Professor Adam Brown says that neither may be a voter-participation cure and has suggested that the state may want to study other alternatives to the caucus system. Count My Vote backers said they are gathering signatures statewide to ask if voters want a direct primary election system rather than neighborhood political cottage meetings that decide delegates and candidate preferences for party conventions. In response, Sen Curt Bramble, R-Provo, introduced SB54 and passed it through the Utah Senate.
During debate on the Senate floor, rather than consider SB54’s merits, senators appeared to be speaking out against Count My Votes backers’ claims that the legislature is attempting to “thwart the rights of the people to an initiative ” as Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, put it. Bramble championed the bill that some claimed was an “end-run” around efforts to get the Count My Vote initiative on the November’s ballot.
Efforts to increase voter turnout may be lost in politics presently, but Brown and lawmakers alike are questioning whether or not changing the system to a primary would really do much in the way of increasing voter turnout.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, one of two voices who spoke in opposition to SB54 argued that “independent redistricting” as the solution to Utah’s’ lack of voter turnout. He was referring to Republicans’ redistricting that appeared to create more conservative-leaning legislative and congressional districts in the state.
Bramble said redistricting is not the way to increase voter turnout. “It’s about political philosophies,” he said. Bramble believes that polarization within the parties is creating more and more independent voters who decide not to vote for either party.
Brown said, “There is truth in what both [Dabakis and Bramble] are saying but they are missing the broader point. . . Why would you vote in an election if its not going to make a difference?”
It’s no surprise the the majority of elections in Utah end with the Republican candidate winning. Which is exactly why some believe voter turnout is at an all-time low.
Brown said there is no data to support that a change in the caucus system will lead to more voter registration. He said if the state wants to try something, it might look to other models. For example, Washington, California and Louisiana are experimenting with run-off voting. Such alternatives might create stronger “surprise factors” in elections.
The elements that makes these election systems so different is that candidates from the same party can be placed on the same final ballot. Instead of only voting Democrat or Republican in a primary, voters might be able to choose between two Republicans or two Democrats. Usually one is more moderate than the other.
While the systems are still largely untested and the data supporting these types of electoral systems is unsure, Brown said, “I am excited to see what happens in Washington and California.”
Currently Count My Vote efforts that began under the banner of increasing voter turnout hold rocky footing at the Legislature as it passes its midway point, but it did find some recent strength from supporters including Mitt Romney.
The majority of state senators who have made statements echo Bramble’s statement that SB54 is a compromise.
Count My Vote supporters said they disagree that the bill follows up on past promises from the GOP. The promise included adding an absentee ballot, opening the caucus to unaffiliated voters and defaulting to a primary in cases where candidates were unable to collect 66 percent of delegate’s votes.