Tribune editorial: As parties shift and stretch, straight-ticket voting is shooting in the dark

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake, speaks at the Democratic Health Care Caucus at the Salt Lake County Democratic Convention Saturday, April 14, 2018. Arent says she will bring back a bill to do away with the straight-ticket voting option in Utah.

What defines a Democrat or Republican? It’s getting harder to say, and that is at the heart of the argument against straight-ticket voting.

Whatever one might think of the president’s politics, for instance, most would agree it is less clear what the Trump-dominated Republican Party stands for. Nowhere has that strain been felt more than in GOP-dominated Utah.

The Democrats aren’t all of one mind, either.

As it happens, straight-party Democratic voters helped put Ben McAdams over the top in the 4th Congressional District. Salt Lake County saw 14,000 more Democrats vote straight party than Republicans, and most of the 4th District is in Salt Lake County.

McAdams, however, has turned his back on his party’s standard bearer in the House, going so far as to say he may go with the Republican for speaker of the House rather than Rep. Nancy Pelosi. That is not where most Democrats are.

Straight-ticket voting is a throwback to days when party bosses essentially chose all candidates in backroom deals, leaving voters to merely affirm the lineup. Now, Utah is one of only seven states that continue to offer it.

With that in mind, Utah Rep. Patrice Arent is promising to bring back legislation to join the majority of states that disallow the straight-ticket option. The Democrat’s previous attempt had gone nowhere in the Republican-dominated Legislature, but the straight-ticket-fueled success of McAdams and other Salt Lake County Democrats this year may change the dynamic.

Such a change would be a small nudge to voters to slow down and get better educated. At the very least, they’ll have to read the candidates’ names on down-ballot races. For many, they’ll still have the R, D or whatever to guide them as they look at each race. It takes more time, but the result can be the same for those who bleed red or blue. But more voters will do the research if they can’t just check a box at the top and hope for the best.

Disavowing straight-ticket voting is part of a larger desire to lessen the two-party system’s stranglehold, which is rightly blamed for a lot of political stagnation as both parties are reluctant to give any ground.

In that sense, an attempt to make the Utah Board of Education partisan — the legality of which is now before the Utah Supreme Court — is heading in the wrong direction. Utah has been wise to avoid partisan elections for judges, and that should be the model for school boards, too, as the Utah Constitution intended.

Straight-ticket voting is a relic. Discarding it would be a small step in modernizing our democracy.