A long-debated and repeatedly defeated proposal to end straight-party voting in Utah is headed to the House floor after eking out a bipartisan 6-5 victory in a House committee Wednesday.
Four Republicans and two Democrats on the House Government Operations Committee voted in favor of the bill, HB259, which is sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat and was supported during its committee hearing by representatives from the United Utah and Libertarian parties.
“Anything that we can do that reduces that reliance on party first and foremost — above country, above good government, above thinking — is a good thing,” said United Utah Party Chairman Richard Davis.
All five of the committee members who opposed HB259 are Republicans.
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, the bill’s House sponsor, said that just under one-third of voters opted to cast a straight-party ballot in 2018, meaning they indicated support for a party’s slate of candidates in lieu of casting a vote on each ballot item.
But she added anecdotal stories of voters who say they were confused by the option, believing they were compelled to indicate their party affiliation or failing to vote in nonpartisan down-ballot elections.
Utah is one of only seven states that allows a straight-party vote.
“We want to make sure that people thoughtfully vote for each person on the ballot,” Arent said.
Arent was joined during her committee presentation by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, who had planned to run identical legislation before learning that Arent had taken up the issue for the 2019 session.
Hall echoed Arent’s concerns, saying that straight-party voting can lead to voters — intentionally or unintentionally — skipping races that don’t include partisan candidates.
“If they just vote either Republican or Democrat or independent or whatever party is their preferred party,” Hall said, “then they miss all the judges, all the school boards, all the propositions.”
But critics on the committee questioned why the Legislature would repeal a ballot feature that is apparently popular with hundreds of thousands of voters statewide.
“The fact that it shrinks the options on the table is the part that is a little concerning to me,” said Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George.
And Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, said his mother-in-law took advantage of straight-party voting in the last years of her life.
“This was just one of the things that made it a little bit easier,” he said.
Arent responded that state law allows for Utahns to assist a family member with their ballot, and that eliminating the straight-party option cuts down on the length and complexity of the ballot.
“I think there are huge advantages and it will eliminate confusion,” she said.
HB259 will now move to the full House for consideration.
Correction: Feb. 21, 8:00 a.m. • An earlier version of this article misidentified the party affiliation of Millcreek Democratic Rep. Patrice Arent.