SALT LAKE CITY — While one group questioned the validity of signatures on Count My Vote petitions Friday, the state Senate passed a bill to counter the effort to dump Utah's political party caucus and convention system for direct primary elections.

Protect Our Neighborhood Elections filed a complaint with the lieutenant governor's office seeking to invalidate most of the 100,000 names Count My Vote has gathered to get its initiative on the November ballot. It claims to have evidence that Count My Vote workers violated state elections law in collecting signatures.

"I'm shocked at how corrupt the petition process has been," said Kaysville resident Tiffany Hess, who attended a news conference at the Capitol before the complaint was filed Friday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, the Senate passed controversial SB54, which would allow political parties to avoid the direct primaries called for in the Count My Vote initiative by making some changes to the caucus and convention system.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said his bill would give Utahns more opportunity to participate in the election process than the Count My Vote initiative. Bramble said it would allow unaffiliated voters into party primary elections but the initiative would not.

The measure passed 22-4, with two Democrats and two Republicans dissenting. It now goes the House.

Senators again attempted to justify the Legislature's involvement, saying Count My Vote has yet to gather the required signatures and it's unknown if the initiative would pass should it be on the ballot.

"It's entirely appropriate to act now," said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

On Thursday, Count My Vote Executive Chairman Rich McKeown called Bramble's bill a "clever ploy" to disregard the voice of Utahns. McKeown said it's wrong for lawmakers to change the rules when the signature gathering is almost to the finish line.

The group did not respond to a call for comment on the elections complaints, but said on Twitter it questions the validity of the complaints "but nonetheless takes them seriously."

According to Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, petition workers lied to voters about what they were signing and left petitions unattended at schools or business counters, meaning Count My Vote can't provide the required verification of the signatures.

The group said it has audio, video and photographic proof and presented a recording of a petition worker asking for signatures to keep schools from taking school lunch away from students. The exchange was recorded by Kim Weis from Bear River.

"It is despicable to lie and mislead individuals signing their petition," said James Humphreys, spokesman for Protect Our Neighborhood Elections.

Humphreys also alleged that only one of the eight corporations that have donated more than $750 to Count My Vote have filed the required financial disclosures. He said Count My Vote should have educated the corporations.

"We will continue to fight CMV. We will continue to fight their notion that more people will be able to participate in the process. And we will continue to fight to let the average citizen know how their voice is heard," said Kari Malkovich, of Woodland Hills, president of the Women's State Legislative Council of Utah.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said Utahns need to be aware of what they're signing.

"It gives me pause that there are allegations that signatures may have been obtained fraudulently," she said. "That should be a signal, I think, to the general public to be very careful about what they sign."

Lockhart said Thursday that she doesn't think it's out of line for the Legislature to consider a bill aimed at Count My Vote.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

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