The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
It’s no secret that voter engagement in Utah is at an all-time low.
Utah used to rank in the top few states for voter turnout but we are now consistently in the bottom few, battling it for the lowest spot in the nation. This ranking, coupled with the loss of former-Senator Bob Bennett to now-Senator Mike Lee, has brought voter engagement to the forefront of the conversation.
These two causes for concern over voter engagement have produced two different, but related, ideas for solving voter participation problems in Utah. The first is the Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Democracy and the second is the Count My Vote Initiative. As you can imagine, it was the second problem–Mike Lee’s election–and the second solution–Count My Vote–that has finally drawn significant attention to voter engagement in Utah.
While the aims of the Count My Vote campaign are important, the organizers of the initiative aren’t going far enough. There are several policies or changes necessary before Utah will see higher voter participation.
Currently, state parties select candidates through a caucus system. The caucus system prevents widespread voter participation by limiting involvement to a select group of delegates who are available to meet at very precise times and locations. Since Utah is a predominantly one-party state, this limited involvement means only a very small percentage of people are involved in selecting who gains the Republican nomination and who, therefore, wins the general election. And further, those that do attend caucuses are often activists (or some might say extremists) in the parties–leading to candidates that hold their same views rather than the broader, more moderate views of the average Utahn.
There is no doubt that this disillusions Utah voters by bringing the Republican party further to the right (and away from mainstream moderate Utahns), and by further entrenching the one-party system. Count My Vote wants to change the current primary nomination system by opening up primaries to the general population. But is it enough to fix our paltry voter turnout numbers?
It may help, but the Count My Vote initiative is only one (and perhaps not even the most important) in a list of many necessary reforms if voter engagement is to significantly increase in Utah. In other words, the initiative just doesn’t go far enough.
A more comprehensive reform effort must include these three necessary elements 1) access to the polls, 2) fair and competitive elections, and 3) statewide ethics reforms. These three categories can be further broken down to include these specific policies: Election day voter registration; Online voting; Primary ballot reform; Statewide campaign finance reform; an Independent redistricting commission; and an Independent ethics commission.
The Count My Vote initiative only satisfies one of these necessary reforms–primary ballot reform–and really only in the context of one of the major political parties. It is not clear that the problems plaguing the Utah Republican Party Caucus system are also problematic for the Democratic Party. For example, much to the chagrin of the more extreme elements of the Democratic party, Democratic delegates have consistently elected the very moderate Jim Matheson, despite convention and challengers from the left.
While the Count My Vote Initiative is a noble goal that will likely prevent fringe candidates from gaining elective office in Utah by opening up Utah’s cloistered primary system, it only addresses the element of low voter participation by focusing on the problem of fair and competitive elections, and only in the context of the party system, without addressing the equally worthy goals of access to the polls and statewide ethics reforms.
Truly comprehensive reform must address not only fair and competitive elections, but access to the polls and ethics laws for those we elect.
In order to achieve widespread civic engagement in Utah, true reform will require policies that go well beyond the County My Vote mission and must have the support of not only the party insiders but also our elected officials–the very people who may have the most to lose with increased voter turnout.