Commentary: The only two issues that matter to Utah voters

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) In the House Chamber in Salt Lake City, Thursday March 8, 2018.

What are the issues that make Utah voters decide whom they are going to vote for? What you are about to read will not surprise Utah politicians. But it does not conform to what is published in the Utah media.

The Utah Foundation published its list of the top 10 issues for 2016. Health care, air quality, public education and taxes topped the list. Yet, in 2016 and 2018 and for almost as long as I can remember, the voters voted on none of these issues. If they had, Utah would have a much different government than currently exists.

This does not necessarily mean voters lie to pollsters, but rather pollsters may not ask the right questions.

I would like to suggest that the two major issues for Utah voters are: 1) party; and 2) religion. After that, there is basically no other issue that matters, although almost synonymous with these two issues are abortion rights and gay marriage. And party and religion are closely linked, especially in the Republican Party.

Utah is one of a handful of states that permit straight party voting. This gives both parties a built-in advantage, but because there are so many more Republicans than Democrats in Utah, Republicans are greatly more advantaged. For this reason attempts in the legislature to change it have died in committee. In the most recent statistics available, of the approximately 1.5 million voters in Utah, Democrats totaled 185,000, Republicans 681,000 and Unaffiliated 509,000. Although exact statistics on how unaffiliated voters vote in general elections are unavailable, the results in partisan elections would indicate that a sizeable majority of them vote for Republican candidates. It is my view that many of not most unaffiliated voters choose to be unaffiliated it somehow seems more virtuous to them to say they vote for the person instead of the party. But in many, if not most cases I believe they do not take the time and effort to study the positions of the candidates they vote for, hence, they are "partisans in disguise."

In virtually all Republican races, religion and party are inseparable. With one exception, every Republican legislator is also LDS. Democrats in the Legislature are evenly split between LDS and non-LDS.

Several years ago, The Salt Lake Tribune published the voter registration of the top 15 general authorities in the LDS Church. Eleven of them were Republicans and the other four were unaffiliated. Not a single Democrat to be found.

Mormons know this, and so they feel that the Republican Party is the “Only True Party.” Official church statements of political neutrality, they appear to feel, are wink-wink, nudge-nudge political cover to ensure the church’s non-profit status. The pronouncement thus becomes “Do as I say, not do as I do.”

The one exception to the afore stated rule is Senate District 18, where non-Mormon Ann Milner was elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2018. Milner is the former president of Weber State University. This poses and interesting question, because her predecessor at WSU, Harvard-educated Paul Thompson was called to be an LDS mission president soon after leaving WSU. Returning to Utah after his mission, Thompson ran for the Legislature as a Democrat in Utah County and was defeated. This is evidence that party trumps religion among Utah Republicans.

The bottom line, then, is that Republicans in the state Legislature care nothing for the issues voters tell pollsters. And even plebiscites such as recent propositions are swept aside, because the legislators know that as long as they have an R after their name on the ballot, they are assured of election.

The most graphic illustration of this was the 2007 referendum on school vouchers. By a 68 percent to 32 percent margin, voters rejected the voucher law passed by the Legislature. Yet not a single legislator who voted for vouchers was defeated in the following election. Even Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. who supported and signed the legislation left office unscathed and remains a symbol of Republican moderation.

Vance Pace

Vance Pace, Kaysville, spent a 30-year career as a Foreign Service officer. He holds bachelors and masters degrees in political science from Utah State University.