Gov. Gary Herbert apparently questions the wisdom of Utah’s voters. He recently suggested that a Republican under investigation for a potential federal crime could still defeat a qualified Democratic candidate for statewide office. What does that say about Utah voters?
We’ll never know. In November, Republican John Swallow handily defeated his Democratic opponent in the race for attorney general. Before the election, Swallow had been accused by one of his political donors of brokering a bribe to get the federal government to drop an investigation into the donor’s business practices.
Mark Shurtleff, Swallow’s friend and attorney general at the time, decided the allegations were serious enough to alert the U.S. Attorney’s Office. But he chose not to inform the public. Did Shurtleff think that releasing the information before the election would hurt Swallow’s chances? Herbert wouldn’t bet on it. According to an article in the Deseret News, "Concerns over Swallow's dealings should have been shared with voters, state leaders say" (Feb. 13), “The governor wasn’t sure it would have made a difference in the outcome of the election.”
This isn’t about one candidate or election. The Swallow scandal is only a symptom of a more serious disease infecting Utah’s democracy. The pathogen is that three-fourths of the races for county, state and federal offices are considered automatic wins for Republicans. Research by the Utah Foundation found that the lack of competitive races, many of which are uncontested, is one of the main reasons the state’s eligible voter participation has plummeted from the highest in the nation in 1968 to 11th worst in 2012. Too many voters who do show up at the polls are passionate partisans or those who are not paying attention. In that case, scandals don’t matter.
Most Utahns are not lazy or uncaring about good governance. But too many are woefully disengaged from the political process. How many voters know which precinct and district they live in, much less the names of their representatives, their challengers or their respective positions on issues? Not many. Lacking an informed opinion, they resort to voting the party label, disregarding the qualifications of the candidates.
Isn’t it best, though, if elective offices are dominated by Republicans? Haven’t their policies resulted in Utah being named the best managed state in the nation? Don’t be misled. Utah’s claim to being the “best managed” doesn’t tell the real story.
The state gambles over $200 million each year in grants and future tax breaks to attract new businesses, but there is scant evidence that this actually produces the promised jobs and income. The Legislature’s ill-advised tradeoffs and cuts to the budget of the Department of Environmental Quality have our citizens wheezing in some of the dirtiest air in the nation. Utah’s per-student investment in education is the lowest in the nation and Utah’s starting teachers’ salary is 49th lowest in the U.S. GOP legislators slashed funding for the mentally ill by 6.7 percent over the last three years. And the Republicans’ supermajority routinely scoffs at the democratic process and dictates the state’s spending priorities in closed caucuses with little or no outside input, virtually disenfranchising 25 to 30 percent of the citizens who regularly cast their ballots for Democrats. Best managed? You decide.
We’ll never know if John Swallow would have lost the election if all the allegations about his abysmal judgment had been aired in advance. But it is clear that Utah voters’ chronic craving for one-party rule has fostered an unhealthy democracy.
Sadly, Herbert’s tacit admission that Utah voters are falling short in their democratic responsibilities rings true. It would be enlightening to know if he is satisfied with that or if he plans to do something about it. One thing is sure: Because Utahns have become less interested in their government, their government has become less interested in them.
Larry Alan Brown lives in Alpine.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company