Richard Davis: Utah vacancies should be settled by special elections, not appointment

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 18 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

It should be the voters who own the seat of the new attorney general, not the party organization. It is the people’s elected office. The person who holds it represents them (or should) and not a group of party activists.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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Last Saturday, the Republican State Central Committee forwarded three names to the governor’s office for his consideration in appointing a new attorney general. This system of choosing an elected official is inherently flawed. The basic premise is the party owns the office that is now vacated and therefore has the right to decide the list from whom the governor appoints.

Yet, it should be the voters who own that seat, not the party organization. It is the people’s elected office. The person who holds it represents them (or should) and not a group of party activists.

With the high-profile appointment of a statewide elected official, this may be the time to consider alternatives. One alternative is a special election. Most states hold special elections to fill mid-term vacancies. Utah should as well.

A legitimate barrier to special elections has been the cost. Such elections require county election offices to set up polling places, operate vote machines, and recruit election judges and monitors. The recent special election to replace the mayor of San Diego cost an estimated $6 million, which has a population slightly larger than Utah’s but is much more geographically compact.

Yet there is a way to conduct a special election with reduced costs — vote by mail. Oregon and Washington conduct elections only by mail. A number of states are using vote by mail as supplements to regular voting. Utah also is considering doing so.

Vote by mail systems typically cost less than regular elections, even with the expense of mailing ballots to voters. States and counties using vote by mail have reported significant cost savings over regular voting methods. Utah’s elections office is considering how to incorporate vote by mail into Utah elections. However, what is not being considered is the use of vote by mail for special elections. It should be.

It is true that a special election, even by mail, would cost more than the current system of a small number of party delegates choosing individuals. But, just like the current caucus-convention system generally, the system of filling mid-term vacancies is too heavily weighted toward party insider roles and away from the average citizen. There is a cost to democratic participation that a democratic society needs to be willing to bear. A dictatorship is highly cost-efficient as well, but it is a system few of us would prefer merely for the cost savings. Most states have accepted those costs. Utah should be among that group.

Vote by mail is not perfect, nor is it a panacea for problems such as low voter turnout or a one-party state. However, the current system is far from perfect either. But it would give voters a say in who represents them. This is not a minor point. The governor’s pick as attorney general will serve for nearly a year before standing before the voters. Similarly, Rep. Derek Brown’s successor will cast votes in the state Legislature in the name of the voters of his or her district, even though those voters did not select him or her to do so.

Moreover, holding a special election to fill a mid-term vacancy rather than allowing party/governor appointment weakens the contemporary practice of elected officials answering to the caucus delegates more than they do the voters. That relationship makes average voters feel excluded from the political process and is likely to reduce voter interest and voter turnout. It is time to bring voters back into the process of voting for their own representatives, through primary elections as well as special elections.

The state Legislature should not approve vote by mail for general elections and exclude it for special elections. Indeed, moving to vote by mail might be accomplished through experimenting with special elections first. A trial with special elections might be an effective means to determine how to implement vote by mail more broadly.

The Legislature can offer voters an opportunity to participate in the process of choosing their own representatives even when they serve for the remainder of a mid-term vacancy. It should give voters that opportunity this next legislative session by making special elections, not party/governor appointment, the mechanism for filling mid-term vacancies in Utah.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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