A Step Backwards in Utah

Some people might think that Tuesday was a step backwards because Obama won. Others might consider it a step backwards because Chris Buttars won again. The real step backwards was that 59,000 fewer people voted in Utah this year than in 2004. That is not just lower percentage turnout, that’s lower numbers.

Mark Thomas with the Lieutenant Governor’s Office says . . . the ballot generally lacked hotly contested local races.

“There are people who feel that this is a Republican state and my vote won’t make a difference,” Thomas says. “But I think that’s not a very good attitude in the sense that there are a lot of other races that do affect you, and perhaps even more so in your day to day life, on a local level.”

We need hotly contested local races on a consistent basis to bring people out to the polls. Too many of our elected officials are chosen at the state and county Republican Party conventions where only the elected delegates get to vote. It cannot be considered anything like a democracy when our officials are chosen by the votes of less than 1% of the population (the delegates) who were given the chance to vote based on the support of the 2% of our population who attended their neighborhood caucus meetings.

I’m almost tempted to suggest that the Republicans be allowed (required?) to place two candidates for every office in Davis and Utah counties just so that the general election will have some real meaning. Perhaps better would be a general rule that in a county where more than 70% of the elected officials come from a single party that party be required to field two candidates in the general election. After all, the first Tuesday in November was supposed to be a choice, not a ratification.

12 comments for “A Step Backwards in Utah

  1. November 7, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Whoa, there. Who didn’t have a right to go to their neighborhood caucus meeting? Who didn’t have a right to be nominated by their neighbors to be a delegate at the county and/or state convention? If people want more say in the matter, they have plenty of opportunity to get involved. Why should the ignorant and uninvolved — the ones that do none of the hard lifting — get any more choices on election day?

    We live in a democratic republic, not a democracy. We either directly or indirectly choose people to represent us in almost all matters of public policy. The people that are too lazy or apathetic to get involved by default choose to let their more civically active neighbors represent them at the caucus meetings, at the conventions, and at the polls. Nobody makes these people choose this course.

    In Utah, for example, despite what I said on my blog, it is possible that a number of Romney supporters made good on their threat not to support McCain in the general election by simply not voting.

    It is a simple fact of human nature and economics that people tend to get more involved when they suspect that their vote could actually matter. There are many reasons that some races are competitive and that some are not. Your suggestions address only one of these reasons. Artificially creating conditions designed to generate more competitive races would produce many unintended side effects — some pleasant and some not so pleasant.

    I believe you have discussed instant runoff voting in the past. It is possible that something like this would produce more competitive races, but only if there are more than just two candidates on the ballot. However, it is possible that implementation of IRV would incentivize more ballot diversity. I’d like to see a multi-election pilot project of this run in a state or even in a portion of a state to see how it would work in real life.

  2. November 7, 2008 at 10:42 am

    Consistently having non-competitive races discourages turnout. If we had a viable two party system here I would have no complaints about the fact that the candidates for each party are chosen by only a select few people (the delegates). When 60% of the delegates are able not simply to choose the candidate for the party but the officeholder (because of the stranglehold of a single party) then people will not choose to participate in the one level of participation that they have any real understanding about. Caucus meetings are confusing to most people and they have been taught that their choice is at the ballot box. Unfortunately here in Utah the choice is made before people get to the ballot box.

    Admittedly they are free to participate, but thanks to a vibrant educational system they are ignorant of what their options really are.

    I like the idea of IRV but, as you say, that only works with more than two candidates to choose from. In a place that had a third party that could consistently field candidates I’d love to see that tried, but in a place with a second party that often fails to field a candidate there would be no test of IRV. Do you really think that “Superdell” would have received more votes with IRV or any other system? The only help of IRV is with a healthy multi-party system. We have an unhealthy two-party system which is rigged against third partied (even if it were healthy).

    My idea would only kick in where there was an unhealthy imbalance between the two major parties. The only way IRV can help is if our third parties are able to field reasonable candidates in a variety of races. I don’t see that happening until we have political dialog rather than decrees from on high.

  3. November 7, 2008 at 11:09 am

    For more competitive and representative elections, you may also want to check out “choice voting,” which uses the single transferable vote and multi-member districts.

    Animations at http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public/extra/animations.xml

  4. Andrea
    November 7, 2008 at 11:12 am

    Turnout was low because Republicans stayed home.

  5. Hyrum
    November 7, 2008 at 11:24 am

    What about the primaries? The whole point of a primary is to provide competition within a party before the general election. There are groups, for example, in the Republican party that can champion candidates in the primaries. If you don’t feel like there is competition in the general election, do you have competition in the primaries?

  6. November 7, 2008 at 11:25 am

    Rob,

    Thanks for that link. That kind of a system would be applicable to races such as city councils where the council members are elected at large and people are allowed to vote for multiple seats, but it does not work where the intent is for a single representative to be tied to a specific district.

    Andrea,

    It’s a bit of a circular argument because Republicans stayed home in large part because their votes would not mean anything with no hotly contested local races. Democrats might be enthusiastic to show their support for Obama despite the fact that their votes would mean nothing in the final tally for president, but even if McCain had a chance, Republicans would have no reason to come to the polls in Utah since he was going to win Utah without them. To get an engaged electorate you need to have local races worth voting for.

  7. November 7, 2008 at 11:40 am

    Hyrum, you snuck in there.

    The problem with the idea that primaries work is that the system in Utah is that if one candidate can get 60% of the delegate votes at the conventions there is no primary. No primary means no primary competition. All a candidate has to do to get elected is get in the good graces of enough delegates to avoid a primary. For something like a state house district that can be less than 30 people to convince.

    Imagine that you have two people seeking the party nomination and things are evenly split among the delegates – one candidate need only convince perhaps 5 delegates to change their support in order to avoid a primary and hence be handed the election. Re-election becomes as simple as keeping those five people happy without alienating the rest of the people that were already in your camp before.

  8. November 7, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    David,

    You’re welcome.

    Remember that “where the intent is for a single representative to be tied to a specific district,” voters can have either a representative district or a competitive district. But under a single-member plurality electoral system they cannot have both.

    The gerrymander-proof, spoiler-proof ranked-choice electoral systems promoted by FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy are much competitive and representative than plurality rule.

    http://www.fairvote.org

  9. November 7, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    Whatever the advantages of your system, I am not up to the challenge of changing the entire structure of our state system of representation (let alone the national system).

  10. Andrea
    November 8, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    David,

    It’s not a circular argument. Republicans stayed home because they weren’t thrilled with their presidential candidate.

  11. November 9, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    Andrea,

    You are right. I just wish that people recognized that our problems can’t be solved by getting “the right guy” in the White House. They can only be solved by all of us taking greater interest in our communities and in the local levels of politics. In other words, we must consider the local races to be important enough that we don’t allow them to be nothing more than coronations.

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