File: Mitt Romney REUTERS/Richard Carson

Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is lending his support to an initiative that would change the way Utah political parties choose their candidates.

In an e-mail to former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R), Romney said he supports Count My Vote, an initiative that would require party nominees to be chosen in primaries rather than through a convention system.

“I want to tell you that Ann and I are supporters. Since the election, I’ve been pushing hard for states to move to direct primaries,” Romney wrote in an e-mail first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune. “Caucus/convention systems exclude so many people: they rarely produce a result that reflects how rank-and-file Republicans feel. I think that’s true for Democrats, too.”

Romney said the Count My Vote initiative could “count on us to help financially.”

Utah parties currently nominate candidates through conventions, where only a small handful of elected delegates can vote. If no candidate receives a 60 percent supermajority of the convention vote, the top two vote-getters advance to a primary election.

That system has led to the ouster of several incumbents, most notably Sen. Bob Bennett (R), who finished in third place in his 2010 re-election bid. Leavitt and other top Republicans have pushed the initiative to change the convention process, they say, to open nominating primaries to a wider swath of Republican voters.

The Count My Vote campaign must collect almost 102,000 valid signatures to get the initiative on the November ballot.

But Utah’s legislature, which conservatives control by a wide margin, is working on its own legislation that would circumvent the ballot initiative. A proposal sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble would allow convention nominating processes to continue, with minor changes. Delegates would be allowed to vote by absentee ballot, and candidates would have to get 65 percent of the vote to avoid a primary; the higher threshold, the thinking goes, would ensure more primary elections.

Bramble’s legislation has passed the Senate and awaits House action. Gov. Gary Herbert (R) has left open the option to veto the bill.

In his e-mail to Leavitt, who headed Romney’s pre-election transition team and was rumored to be in the running for a top White House post if Romney had won, Romney said he was surprised at the rival bill heading through the legislature.

” I’m quite surprised legislators would consider doing that on a Voter Initiative. It seems to me if voters use a constitutional process to formally demand a chance to vote on something, the legislature shouldn’t interfere,” Romney wrote. “I’m especially surprised legislators would interfere with a ballot measure defining how they get elected. It smacks of self-interest and feels very wrong.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the Count My Vote initiative have challenged the validity of the signatures supporters have collected. Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, the rival group that supports the current convention system, filed a complaint last week with the lieutenant governor’s office that seeks to invalidate many of the signatures already collected.