Richard Davis: Lawmakers ignore ways to strengthen democracy

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 9 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Four years ago, then-Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. established the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy. He did so to respond to widespread concerns about a decline in political participation by Utahns. The commission, with Kirk Jowers of the Hinckley Institute of Politics as acting chair, spent nearly a year analyzing Utah's political system to determine what reforms were needed in areas such as campaign finance, lobbying, and elections.

Utahns might be interested to know what came of that effort. What has the governor and the Legislature done with those recommendations over the past three years? Here are some answers.

The commission recommended closing a loophole that still allowed legislators to lobby immediately after they leave office as long as they didn't work for a company whose business was lobbying. A cooling-off period for all lobbying is a good thing. Allowing such a loophole makes the law meaningless because it allows legislators to still lobby their recent colleagues. That's why the commission wanted the loophole closed. But the legislature ignored this recommendation.

The commission also recommended reforming campaign finance by setting limits on how much individuals, corporations, labor organizations, and political action committees can give to candidates. It also suggested a specific limit for people who hold significant state government contracts so there would be no possible connection between large campaign donations and government contracts. Those recommendations also went nowhere.

Another proposal of the commission allowed voters to register on election day. Many voters forget to register before the registration deadline and are not even aware an election is taking place until election day itself. Same day registration would allow those Utahns to vote if they are otherwise eligible. The commission noted that other states with Election Day registration have significantly higher voter turnout than Utah, and fraud is not likely to be a problem with polling-place identification requirements. This recommendation was one more way to encourage, rather than discourage, people from voting. However, once again, the Legislature failed to act.

Yet another commission idea addressed concerns about restoring the integrity of the process of handling complaints about elections, lobbying, and campaign finance. The commission urged creation of an independent Elections and Lobbying Review Commission to monitor compliance with election and lobbying regulations. This commission would consist of three retired judges (no two could be from the same political party) who would investigate complaints and impose fines for legal violations. Once again, the Legislature did not act on this recommendation.

The Legislature did adopt four of the commission's recommendations. One was designed to ease voting by Utah voters who are overseas in the military, a second was the electronic filing of campaign finance data, a third required disclosure of electioneering ads, and a fourth facilitated data sharing across government agencies that allowed portability of voter registration.

However, the rest of the 14 recommendations of the commission, particularly major ones, have been ignored by the Legislature. Surprisingly, even though it was the "governor's commission", Gov. Gary Herbert has not urged the Legislature to take up these issues. Instead, he, too, has largely discarded the work of the commission.

Could it be because the problems the commission was designed to address are no longer important? For example, has voter turnout gone up? No! According to the state Elections Office, nearly 80 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote in the 1960 election. Today, that percentage is 57 percent! Is Utah's government now transparent and accountable? No! The Center for Public Integrity, an independent government reform group, recently gave Utah a grade of D for accountability, transparency, and avoidance of the risk of corruption.

The Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy was created to address a problem that still exists. When the commission was doing its work, then-Lieutenant Gov. Gary Herbert endorsed the commission's efforts, stating that they were "vital because Utah's legal structure impacts the desire and ability of all citizens to participate in the political process." That is still true. It is time for the governor to press the Legislature to take seriously these recommendations by actually enacting most of them.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu

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