These bills will change Utah’s popular election systems. Robert Gehrke explains why they’re anti-democratic.

This year, Utah lawmakers are proposing changes that would decrease turnout and give more power to partisan delegates

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

Sometimes it seems like the Legislature has a weird compulsion to take things that aren’t broken and futz with them until they are. This time, there are several bills fiddling with how Utah runs elections, which over the years has been refined until it is one of the best systems in the country.

Take Sen. Mike Kennedy’s Senate Bill 189, which would let county clerks or local election officers — with permission from the lieutenant governor — decide if they want to run a mail-in election or go back a decade to when nearly everyone had to vote in person.

Let’s take a minute to think about what that would mean.

First, we know opting to go back to in-person voting would drive down turnout. In 2014, the state allowed counties to opt-in to using mail-in voting. That year, seven of the eight counties that did vote by mail had higher turnout than the state average. But, frankly, that wasn’t hard.

Across the state, just 46% of registered voters participated in the election that year. Pretty awful, but by no means an outlier. Between 1994 and 2014, voter turnout averaged below 50% in midterm elections.

Compare that to our last midterm election, when voters cast ballots by mail, and turnout was 64% — which was actually down from 75% from the 2018 mail-in midterms. With mail-in voting, Utah has moved from the lower end of the turnout figures to the upper end.

Voters like the change. Following the last election, 92% of Utahns were satisfied with their method of voting, according to a poll by Y2 Analytics.

We could also be left with a patchwork of election systems, where some vote by mail and others have to vote in person. In state Senate or House elections that cross county lines, constituents in mail-in counties where turnout is high would carry more weight than in-person counties where turnout is low.

That’s exactly what happened in 2014, when the state was experimenting with mail-in voting, and districts that straddled county lines saw higher turnout in the mail-in jurisdictions.

Reverting to in-person voting would also open the door to racial discrimination. Not long ago, San Juan County settled a lawsuit that alleged it had intentionally disadvantaged Navajo voters by setting up too few in-person polling locations.

And, oh, by the way, studies have shown that voting by mail costs less than holding in-person elections.

So, under Kennedy’s proposal, fewer people would vote; we undermine an unbelievably popular election system; we would potentially be left with chaotic, less efficient and unfair elections; it would — intentionally or not — disenfranchise minority voters; and it would cost us more.

And what are the benefits? The only one I can see is that it gives those who believe in bogus election fraud conspiracies part of their demand of full in-person voting — which is a pretty awful reason to do anything, but especially if it comes at the expense of participation in a voting system that works.

The signature path

That might not even be the worst election bill this session. Rep. Jordan Teuscher is sponsoring HB393, which would erode a signature path to the ballot that has proven repeatedly to be a safeguard against letting a tiny group of partisan delegates choose out-of-touch hard-line partisans to represent us.

Under Teuscher’s bill, candidates could still gather signatures to qualify for the primary. But even after they have done that, they could still get kicked off the ballot if another candidate gets 70% at the party’s nominating convention.

“The caucus and convention path is broken because it’s dominated by extremists and bullies. It is not reflective of the majority of primary voters,” Taylor Morgan, executive director of Count My Vote, which pushed for the signature path, said in a statement. “If the Republican Party is concerned the caucus convention path isn’t working, they should focus on improving their own process and stop undermining and punishing candidates who gather signatures.”

From a practical standpoint, it’s unlikely to matter. If a candidate gets 70% of the delegate vote at a nominating convention and can’t win a party primary, we have all the evidence we need to prove the nominating conventions don’t reflect the mainstream of the party.

But if that’s the case, then it really serves no purpose. And getting what might, in some cases, support from just a few dozen delegates shouldn’t be the basis for kicking someone off the primary ballot who otherwise has done what they were supposed to.

There’s one more bad election bill — HB214 from Rep. Jason Kyle. Under his proposal, if no candidate in a primary gets over 50% of the vote, the candidate who got 60% at a nominating convention is declared the winner. If nobody reached that 60% threshold at convention, there is a run-off.

So either the convention-chosen candidate can win a multi-candidate race or taxpayers have to spend millions on a run-off election. Among certain parts of the GOP, there is a strong feeling that the winning candidate needs to get over 50%, yet at the same time, many are fighting the use of ranked-choice voting, which would get them that result without the expense. In their attempt to hand more power back to the delegates — which is the wrong direction to go — this proposal would add expense and complication to an already complicated process.

The unifying thread in all three bills is they are unnecessary and anti-democratic at their core.

When we look at changes to our election systems, we should have a few fundamental questions: Will this change mean more people will participate in our democracy? Are we making it easier or harder for voters to cast ballots? Will this produce a result that is more reflective of the people the winner will represent?

None of these bills pass any of the basic tests.

Instead, they cater to narrow Republican factions that have been indoctrinated to distrust what is a very good process or to those who want to take elections away from the broader pool of primary voters and hand it over to a narrow segment of partisan delegates.

Still, we get this sort of pandering every session, it seems. They just can’t help themselves.

Correction: Feb. 13, 2023, 8:40 a.m.This story has been updated to correct the description of how Rep. Jason Kyle’s bill would work.