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Richard Davis: Real Utah election reform still awaits

FILE — Kimberly Goldberg votes in the primary election in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.
FILE — Kimberly Goldberg votes in the primary election in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

When we cast our ballots, there is no place on the ballot for us to explain why we vote the way we do. Social scientists create models and postulate theories. Pollsters devise questions for exit polls. Pundits speculate on motives. (Of course, as voters, we may not be able to explain it either.) However, the way we vote leaves the outcome open for vast interpretation.

That is what happened with Utah’s primary elections last week. Was SB54 a success or a failure? It depends on who you ask.

Either way, opponents of change should not worry too much, while advocates of SB54 should not pat themselves on the back with the self-assurance that they have radically reformed Utah politics. The reality is that even if SB54 had been an astounding success, the vast majority of voters were not included in the victory. And real choice for those voters remains elusive.

That is because what change came about was limited to a fraction of the voters. Typically, less than 20 percent of Utah voters participate in primary elections. That is because primary elections tend to attract far fewer voters than general elections where a candidate actually is elected to the office. Additionally, when a party closes its primary election to a minority of the electorate, as the Republican Party does in Utah, that limits who can participate.

The election that should matter is the one in November. It is then that candidates are formally elected and all registered voters can participate, not just Republicans. Therefore, election reformers should place their emphasis there and not on the primary election where only a small minority of the voters participate.

How can that be done?

Reformers can advocate for the removal of the straight party label from the ballot. The straight party lever, particularly as the first choice of a voter, encourages thoughtless voting. The message to voters is he or she should allow the party to make the decisions for the voter. The state should not encourage the voter to defer to the party.

Only nine states in the nation still use the straight party lever. That number is dwindling. We may think that the lever increases voter turnout due to the ease of voting. But Utah’s voter turnout statistics belie that conclusion. Utah is now one of the lowest states in the nation in voter turnout.

In fact, reformers could even go one step further by urging removal of the party label altogether. Most of Utah’s elected officials — mayoral, city council, local school board and state school board — already are nonpartisan. Why not extend that to other races as well?

Still another is instituting term limits on our state elected officials. Count My Vote reformers should seek to place term limits on the ballot as an initiative or lobby state legislators to pass legislation creating a referendum for term limits. Those limits need to apply to the governor and state legislators as well as county and local officials. They could include limits such as two terms for governor and lieutenant governor, two terms for state senators, four terms for state representatives and two terms for other elected officials.

Such term limits would encourage more competitive elections as incumbents would not be able to use incumbency to raise money (as Gov. Gary Herbert does), dole out favors or stay in office beyond a reasonable amount of time.

Too often, we trust that our political leaders will be moral on their own initiative. They don’t need limits because they often tout their own morality as good people. But British politician Lord Acton was correct when he concluded that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Even the best of men and women become corrupt when they are given too much power for too long. That is why limits on power, including party power, are crucial to good government.

SB54 is a small reform compared to what needs to occur. If Count My Vote supporters want to make a real difference in Utah politics that will touch the lives of all Utahns, these are a few things they could do.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of "The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Politics." His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.