Utah Legislature signs off on repeal of straight-party voting

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, who is retiring at the end of her current term, speaks with colleagues during the first day of the session at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Monday, Jan. 26.

Since 2013, Rep. Patrice Arent has sponsored the same bill — among other bills — every year: a repeal of the option on Utah ballots to support all the candidates of a particular party with a single vote.

Initially, the Milcreek Democrat’s proposal was dead on arrival at the Republican-controlled Legislature. Last year, the bill made it out of committee and through the House only to “die on the board” as it is called at the Capitol, failing to be heard in the Senate before the stroke of midnight on the final day of business.

That scenario came remarkably close to playing out again on Thursday. The Senate voted 25-1 for this year’s bill, HB70, at 11:42 p.m., but with an amendment that required a final vote in the House.

But at 11:52 p.m., the House agreed with the amendment, sent HB70 to the governor’s desk and concluded an 8-year effort by one of the House’s veteran Democrats, who will retire from the Legislature at the end of her current term.

“I would have felt very badly,” Arent said of the bill’s close call. “I was working so hard to get this bill passed.”

Talk to Arent and the supporters of the repeal and the word you’ll hear a lot of is “confusion.” Their argument says that topping the ballot with a partisan question has led voters to misunderstand that they are expected to indicate their affiliation, or to believe they have completed their ballot by casting that vote despite failing to weigh in on nonpartisan races like ballot initiatives, school board members and judges.

While it’s difficult to prove, the data back up those assertions. Elections officials point to significant drop-offs in the ballot participation for nonpartisan contests, and outlying success for the American Independent Party, suggesting that unaffiliated voters erroneously check that box, thinking they are signaling their independence from either of the major political parties.

In Salt Lake County in 2018, 7% of all straight-ticket votes were cast for the far-right IAP slate, despite the party having an incomplete slate and fewer registered voters than the Libertarian Party, which claimed 1.5% of the straight-ticket vote.

“I talked to other county clerks," Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said. “They said the same thing was occurring in other counties.”

Arent also makes a philosophical argument in the pitch for her legislation. The vote is critical to a democratic government, she says, and it should be treated with more attention and care than straight-ticket voting requires.

She said with the state’s move to vote by mail, residents have all the more ability to research the races and candidates and make a meaningful choice in each contest.

“A thoughtful voter should look at the names,” she said.

This year 33 members of the House joined the bill as cosponsors. In the Senate, it was sponsored by Provo Republican Curt Bramble, who Arent specifically credited with getting the bill through the legislative process.

The final 44-27 vote in the House was followed by scattered applause for Arent. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has not confirmed whether he will sign or veto the bill, but his spokeswoman said Friday that the governor has indicated he supports the idea of voting in individual races.

In most Utah counties, the straight-ticket Republican vote far outweighed that of that for Democrats. But the reverse is true in Salt Lake County, the state’s most populous. In the last election, Democrats got basically a 14,000-vote head start because of the straight-party voting.

Justin Lee, the state’s elections director, said the transition away from straight-ticket voting is a relatively simple one for county offices, and should not pose any challenges for implementation before November.

He said it’s unclear what the immediate effect of the change will be. Roughly one-third of the ballots cast in the state take take advantage of the straight-ticket option, Lee said, but an unquantified yet significant number of those are erroneous with voters casting individual votes for candidates further down the ballot.

“Just because you mark the straight-ticket box,” Lee said, “Doesn’t mean you actually vote straight ticket.”

Lee said it’s typical for the races placed at the top of the ballot — like president, governor and congressional offices — to receive the largest number of votes, with less participation the further down a race is placed on the list. That’s true in states that don’t allow straight-ticket voting, but Lee said many straight-ticket voters are likely checking the partisan box before effectively walking away from their ballots.

Utah is now one of just seven states that allows straight ticket voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Repealing the single-party option could encourage Utahns to take more time and individually consider the choices before them, Lee said.

“Hopefully the effect is that people read the whole ballot,” Lee said, “and they don’t miss down ballot races.”

Swensen has been a vocal supporter of the change to repeal straight-ticket voting. She said the partisan option was a regular source of confusion for voters, and led to erroneous votes being cast.

And while its unclear what precise effect the end of straight-ticket voting will have, Swensen said she believes the change will benefit the state.

“I just think it’s good for people to have an opportunity to look at every contest and the candidates in that contest,” Swensen said. “There was no reason to have straight-party voting. I’m not sure why it occurred in the first place.”