Robert Gehrke: This big change to Utah’s ballot should lead to more thoughtful voters

Your 2020 ballot should show up in your mailbox sometime this week and it is going to be a little different than in years past — look for the big change right at the top.

Gone completely is the first section of the old ballots, the one that lets voters fill in a single bubble and vote a straight-party ticket, casting a vote for every Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or whatever party listed.

It took Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, nearly eight years, but she finally passed HB70 earlier this year to do away with the straight-ticket option.

“I think it makes for a more thoughtful voter when they actually have to look at the names,” Arent said.

It gives them an opportunity to research the candidates, better understand the options in each contest and at least get to know the names of the people who might be representing them.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It also eliminates a lot of confusion, Arent said. Over the years she said she heard stories about people who thought they were supposed to fill in the circle if they were a member of the listed parties or registering to be a member of the party.

Some would fill in the circle and not realize the party didn’t have a candidate in a certain race and miss a chance to vote in the contest. And it was pretty common that people would fill in the straight-party bubble and then not vote for judges, nonpartisan school board races, constitutional amendments, initiatives or referendums, missing a large chunk of the ballot.

Utah isn’t alone in jettisoning the straight-ticket option. Pennsylvania got rid of straight-party voting in 2019; Iowa and Texas abolished it in 2017; and Rhode Island and West Virginia ditched it in 2015. In fact, just six states will allow straight-party voting in the upcoming election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The straight-ticket option has been a surprisingly popular way to vote.

In 2016, for example, there were nearly 340,000 straight party ballots cast in Utah, about three out of every 10 votes counted. In 2018, it eclipsed 341,000, about a third of all of the votes in the state.

It’s also an incredibly lazy way to vote.

No matter what Sen. Mike Lee seems to think, we elect our representatives through a democratic process. And that process works best when voters take the time to learn about the issues and the candidates on their ballot.

Not all candidates are created equal, no matter what letter they have after their name, and blindly checking the box for all of them because they all have the same party affiliation really shows disregard for what a privilege it is to have a say in our government.

That’s especially true now that voting by mail is so successful and firmly entrenched in Utah, giving voters weeks with their ballots. “There’s really not an excuse for taking the time to research the choices,” Arent said.

“I just think it leads to a more educated voter,” said Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, who worked on the legislation with Arent. “Regardless of [what party] it helps or hurts, it leads to a more educated voter. It’s the best policy for the state.”

And, sure, voters might do their research and decide at the end of the day they still want to fill in all the bubbles for candidates from one party. That’s fine. At least they thought about it.

Or maybe they don’t do their research and just vote for the party they’ve always voted for because that’s how they’ve done it. In that scenario, we’re certainly not in a worse place than we were before and maybe these people at least get some practice filling in bubbles.

“This doesn’t stop anyone from voting for all the Democrats or all the Republicans if they want to,” Hall told me, “but it does require the voter to go and consider every candidate in the race, and I think it’s more likely that the voter will choose the candidate that they think is best as opposed to just one political party.”

And that’s no small thing, because, if you ask me, the two party system and the polarization and tribalism and reduction of complex issues into black and white choices is destroying our country.

I’ve been around politics in this state long enough to have learned that there are plenty of good and bad candidates and lots of good and bad ideas out there, regardless of party.

I also know our vote is not something we should take for granted. It is the most direct voice we have in government, we’re lucky to have it and we should exercise it with the respect and seriousness it deserves.

If getting rid of straight-party voting gives people a little nudge to examine the issues and get to know the candidates a little more than they otherwise would — even if it doesn’t change how they vote — it will only be a positive for our democratic system.