In a representative democracy like ours, accountability occurs on two fronts. On the first front,voters are accountable to themselves. They are responsible for making good decisions about who they elect, and they are responsible for many of the choices they make in their own lives. The second front, our elected leaders are ultimately accountable to their constituents. Constituents, at least in theory, get the last word.
But we have an accountability problem in Utah. This problem doesn’t exist on the first front. Utahns are, by and large, an extremely responsible and industrious people. We do just fine being accountable to ourselves. Our leaders, on the other hand, find numerous ways to shield themselves from being accountable to the people. Though legislation effecting ethics and the citizen initiative process might not seem connected, the two directly relate to the issue of accountability.
With only eight days left in the 2014 legislative session, our elected leaders are yet to seriously consider ethics and election reform in the wake of the John Swallow scandal. The Swallow scandal, one of the worst in Utah history, joins the Olympic Organizing Committee bribery scandal and the $13 million UDOT payoff scandal as a black eye on our ethics record. Just like UDOT and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, Swallow saw himself as unaccountable to the people. Despite these scandals, legislators are still trying to shield themselves from the citizens they represent.
The House Special Investigative Committee has proposed several bills that help clarify and refine the disclosure rules that Swallow ignored, but these bills are only good if they actually pass. They have to be enforced, too. In the past, our Legislature has been hesitant to engage in self governance, we hope this time is different.
Second, attacks on the constitutional right of the people of Utah to petition their leaders is one more way our elected leaders shield themselves from being accountable to voters.
Utah has a long history of citizen petitions. In fact, in 1900 Utah became the second state in the country to amend its constitution to include initiatives and referendums. Since that time, our Legislature has passed a series of statutes designed to weaken the power constitutionally held by the people of Utah.
It is no secret that the legislature, secure in their gerrymandered districts, does not always listen to the people of Utah. Utahns are more ideologically moderate than their elected leaders. That’s why the citizen initiatives are so crucial. When the legislature isn’t listening, it allows citizens to go around them. However, instead of listening to Utah voters, the legislature has chosen to limit public participation by continuously changing the rules of the game, frequently in mid-stream. The Count My Vote Initiative appears to be one example of a failed citizen initiative as a result of legislative meddling.
Utah’s accountability problem, tied as it is to legislator’s desire to avoid being responsive to their constituents, is a serious detriment to democracy in Utah. It likely results in lower voter turnout, too, as it breeds cynicism and distrust in citizens. Strengthening our ethics laws and ensuring that citizens can petition their legislators are two important steps for ensuring a robust democratic future for Utah.