One of the most politically vexing parts (of many) of living in Utah is the tendency for the state’s residents to routinely vote for elected officials who don’t represent their viewpoints nor preferences. It’s an incongruity played out over and over again.
Take for example, the grassroots propositions that passed two years ago. Proposition 2, the medical marijuana initiative, handily passed by nearly 6 percentage points. Within weeks the state House passed a bill (HB3001) that greatly altered the intent of the proposition, and the next year, the state Senate passed a bill (SB1002) that effectively killed it.
Proposition 3, crafted to expand Medicaid coverage, passed easily with more than a half a million votes. By the 2019 legislative session, the Senate had approved a bill to repeal and replace Proposition 3, leaving millions of tax dollars in D.C. and more than a hundred thousand Utahns without coverage (this after residents voted to raise their own taxes to cover the health gap).
Proposition 4, an anti-gerrymandering initiative, also passed in November 2018. Predictably, lawmakers didn’t like anything that might tamper with their supermajority. By March 2020, the Senate passed a bill to make sure they would continue to control the redistricting process.
Over and over we see this same inconsistency between Utah voters and the people they elect. Poll after poll enumerates Utahns' preference for national monuments, clean air, anti-sprawl measures, better school funding, protected public lands, repeal of nanny state liquor laws, affordable health care, etc.
And what is the Utah Legislature’s response to its constituent’s desires? Usually next to nothing. There might be a little tinkering around the edges, but certainly nothing to alter the status quo. In fact, our elected officials often do just the opposite of what the people desire and are often hostile to issues with broad public support.
Take Bears Ears National Monument, for example. While the polls varied, every one of them showed a solid majority of the state’s residents supporting the monument’s original boundaries. Instead, Utah’s congressional delegation and governor cheered as President Donald Trump slashed the monument’s size by 85%.
Some 60% of Salt Lake City voters oppose the planned inland port, yet the state’s leaders have rushed to build this pollution- and traffic-creating behemoth. Voters said no and no again to importing radioactive waste (from as far away as Estonia), funding a Utah coal export facility in Oakland (which that city doesn’t even want), as well as building a spectacularly expensive proposed pipeline from ever-shrinking Lake Powell to water golf courses and duck ponds in St. George.
Late last year, the Legislature passed and the governor signed a massive tax bill that 68% of Utahans opposed. To be fair, under intense pressure, the law was repealed in January. But still, why do these and so many other things the public doesn’t support, happen?
It’s a frustrating question. One answer is the fact that the state’s legislative makeup is nothing like the state’s demographics. In a March 25, 2017, Salt Lake Tribune commentary, I argued that the overwhelmingly old, white, male, Mormon and conservative Legislature is far from being much like the state’s residents themselves.
A second answer is simply money, especially the money that pours in through campaign contributions and lobbying. The two largest reported campaign contributors in Utah are fossil fuels and real estate donations. Is it any wonder that we have the second fastest rate of car-centered and polluting suburban sprawl in the country? Is it any wonder that development always trumps protection for our lands, waterways, scenic vistas and wildlife? Speaking of Trump, our president’s policies have harmed Utah in myriad ways, yet he’ll surely gather a majority of the votes here.
The third answer to why our elected officials can so brazenly ignore our will is the most troublesome. It’s because Utah voters don’t do their election homework to study the issues, check candidates' platforms and positions, and hold their representatives to their word. Instead, they vote yard signs.
Cognizant of that reality, growing lists of politicians in the Utah Legislature simply believe they can ignore the will of their constituents without consequence. Until that changes, Utahns will keep voting into office people who don’t represent their viewpoints and are often directly opposed to what they care about and support.
Eric C. Ewert, Ph.D., is a professor and chair of the Department of Geography at Weber State University.