Count My Vote appears to be history. The compromise between initiative leaders and state legislators and the governor means the initiative won’t be on the ballot. For agreeing to election reform favored by the people, they should be congratulated.
The fact that the state Legislature did so only at the prospect of a successful ballot initiative is typical.
Indeed, it would have been better had they decided this on their own rather than with a proverbial gun to their heads. But they have a chance to redeem themselves for being “johnny-come-latelies” if they will just enact more election reform while they are in the mood. Here are three suggestions:
Eliminate the straight party ballot option. Increasingly, states are abandoning this relic of a long-ago past when party machines dominated urban politics and voters placed a party ballot in the ballot box without any regard to the candidates on the ballot. Utah should be among them.
Why is the party lever bad? It encourages voters to act without much thought. Voters assume that whatever the party brings them in terms of candidates is worth voting for. Of course, that is a big assumption. In fact, some party candidates are excellent public servants, but others are not. Only when voters sort through the candidates, race by race, can the dross be separated out and kept from office.
Utah should not be the only state abandoning the party lever. Indeed, most already have. Only 14 states still use it. It is probably no coincidence that most of those states still relying on it are one-party dominant states.
Majority Republican legislators in Utah have the power to do away with this practice. And they should, for their own good. If the Republican message is so much better and more attractive to voters than what Democrats have to say, as Republican leaders and candidates claim, then Republican candidates should not fear having to stand on their own without the party lever. Majority Republicans should prove they have the better issue positions and candidates by eliminating a factor that questions the validity of their asserted superiority.
Limit campaign donations. I once heard a state Democratic Party chairman relate a story about a donor who asked how much he could donate to the party, expecting to hear a dollar limit. He was astounded when he was told that there was no limit to how much he could give to a party or a candidate for office in Utah (outside of the federal races). Of course, such a practice leads to the kind of government official-special-interest nexus that discourages average voters. Many voters believe that their own vote or voice really doesn’t matter when they see elected officials raise tens of thousands of dollars from large donors, particularly those with business interests related to state government, and then provide a level of special access to those donors that average voters could never enjoy. John Swallow was a symbol of a deeper problem the state Legislature still hasn’t solved.
Allocate presidential electoral votes by congressional district. All but two states (Maine and Nebraska) allocate electoral votes for president on the basis of winner-take-all. In other words, the winner of the popular vote gets all of Utah’s electoral votes, even if they barely won. If Utah instituted a congressional district allocation, as do Maine and Nebraska, then a presidential candidate who did not win the statewide popular vote would be able to get an electoral vote by winning a congressional district popular vote.
The advantage would be Utah voters might be able to make more of a difference in the presidential election. Of course, critics of this plan would say that Utah’s power to decide the election might be compromised. But under this plan, each individual Utah voter would have more opportunity to make a difference.
The state Legislature is on a roll of election reform by providing a path to primary elections. But there is yet more to do. It should continue to enact legislation that will make elections more representative of the public’s will and increase thoughtful voter participation in campaigns and elections.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.