Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Questions surrounding Aug. 13 municipal elections

Published: Sunday, Aug. 4 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Victoria Williams processes a mail-in ballot at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

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Yard signs for municipal candidates are popping up like mushrooms in an overwatered lawn. The primary election for Utah's cities and towns is Aug. 13, giving rise to interesting questions.

Although low voter turnout often plagues municipal primary elections, this year is witnessing an increase of early and mail-in voting. How does this phenomenon impact elections?

Pignanelli: "It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting." — Tom Stoppard

Always rushing to hyperbole, I humbly suggest early and mail voting is the most significant development in democracy since the secret ballot. For two centuries, American political campaigns were built around a 12-hour period of voting in a single day. This fostered many dynamics, including last-minute negative attacks, late infusions of media commercials, intense get-out-the-vote efforts, etc. Entire industries were established to infuse candidates with the correct momentum (so they did not peak too early or too late) leading to Election Day. These activities now have the same future as the paper ballot — oblivion.

Soon, half of balloting will be through the mail or early ballots. This is a strong positive development that enhances the democratic process. Citizens accessing this convenience use more time to consider their selections and candidates can no longer rely upon name identification. Studies indicate the personal touch remains the best method of conveying a political message. Early and mail voters thereby demand additional attention beyond just literature at their doorsteps or commercials on the television. Successful candidates use technology to establish a relationship with the voters. (The Obama campaign excelled at this.)

I will mourn the loss of the election eve shenanigans at which many excelled (including me), but our democratic process and society are the benefactors.

Webb: Mail-in voting is a terrific innovation, especially in city elections where many voters haven't heard much about the candidates. Citizens who have signed up for mail-in voting will get a ballot in the mail. Many will then be motivated to go online and learn about the candidates. They're more likely to cast a vote than if they had to travel to a polling station.

Which primary elections are garnering the attention of political observers?

Pignanelli and Webb: West Valley Mayor Mike Winder's decision to retire after one term was a surprise, but the scramble to replace him was expected. Former state representative and budget director Ron Bigelow is facing Don Christensen, Tom Huynh, Karen Lang, Jeffrey Mackay, Margaret Peterson and Alex Segura. The departure of long-time Murray Mayor Dan Snarr opened a floodgate of replacements in this hotly contested primary, with current council members Jim Brass and Darren Stam vying with Ted Eyer, County Councilman David Wilde, Buck Swaney and Tarrell Hughes.

When Provo Mayor John Curtis announced that Google was purchasing the city's broadband network (thereby avoiding financial troubles), observers expected his coronation for re-election. Instead he faces a primary from Jason Christensen, Howard Stone and Timothy Spencer. Insiders are gossiping about the slugfest occurring in South Salt Lake where Mayor Cherie Wood is facing aggressive opposition from Shane Siwik, Derk Pehrson, Robert Miller, William Espinoza and Nick Gosdis.

Organizers of the petition effort "Count My Vote" to reform Utah's delegate/convention system for nominating candidates recently filed its first fundraising report. What are insiders saying about this development?

Pignanelli: While some politicos close to the initiative are pleased with the results, most veteran observers are doubtful. They are noticing who has not contributed so far (i.e. major Republicans). The requirement for 10 percent of voters in 26 of 29 counties is a logistical nightmare that will cost at least $600,000 to achieve and a minimum of $500,000 for media. Further, Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans is focusing his high-energy persona against changes to the status quo. Evans' intense opposition is a significant development because opponents now have a recognizable leader.

Webb: Citizen ballot efforts are very difficult in Utah; few are successful. But this one is going well and has great momentum. Utah's mainstream Republican and Democratic leaders strongly support the effort, along with a clear majority of citizens.

Here's one reason the system needs to change: I attended two meetings in the past week with separate groups of terrific people seeking to influence the Legislature for very good causes. Both groups believe a majority of legislators want to support their efforts, but many lawmakers are worried about upsetting their delegates.

So the strategy of both groups, between now and the next legislative session, is to obtain lists of delegates in targeted legislative districts, profile each delegate, find some who are likely to support the causes, and then ask those delegates to call/email/text their legislator and ask them to vote favorably.

So what's wrong with this picture? All the focus is on delegates. The general public is left out. Vast power is concentrated in the hands of delegates, who can make or break a lawmaker's political career. Legislators and members of Congress are often more concerned about the views of delegates than about their constituents in general. I've been a delegate myself for many years, so I know how it feels to have my vote count vastly more than votes of ordinary citizens.

We need to empower all citizens, especially because numerous surveys show many delegates don't reflect mainstream values. A preponderance are decidedly more liberal or conservative than voters in general.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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