Opinion: How we can fix Utah’s broken electoral system

By giving voters more options, multi-member districts would compel politicians to focus on real issues, not petty partisan politics.

It’s no secret that Utah’s electoral system is broken.

As states across the nation deliberate arguments regarding partisan congressional maps, we’re beginning to see a clearer path forward for a fairer electoral process. However, while Utah’s independent redistricting commission has promised to recommend fair, nonpartisan maps that empower Utah voters, the realities of partisan legislative override and gerrymandering have dampened prospects of accountability and electoral reform.

To find a seemingly impossible solution to our current democratic crisis, Utah’s politicians and citizens need to think outside of the box. Looking to New Hampshire, we can learn from and adapt to an entirely new electoral concept: multi-member districts.

Like several other states, such as Washington, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Arizona, Utah can also replace its flawed single-member districting system with a new proportional multi-member state House and Senate district system. Instead of the traditional single-member districts in which the candidate with the most votes wins as the sole representative of a district, the multi-member district system would elect multiple representatives to larger districts proportionally.

Multi-member districts would allow almost every voter to cast a meaningful vote, regardless of where they live. With larger, more diverse districts, our state Legislature would more accurately reflect the political and cultural diversity of our state. By proportionally allocating seats, Salt Lake City’s Republicans would have a say, just as Logan’s Democrats would, too. Moreover, Utah’s smaller parties, including the United Utah Party, which garnered the support of roughly 4% of Utahns in the 2022 Utah State Senate election cycle, could have a genuine chance to win seats in both chambers of the Utah Legislature.

Our current system conceals the true size of these independents and political minorities. As of November 2023, about 36% of registered Utah voters did not identify with either of the two major political parties. This system subjugates voters to a “lesser-of-two-evils” dilemma at the ballot box, forcing them to elect leaders they don’t necessarily identify with. By giving voters more options, multi-member districts would compel politicians to focus on real issues, not petty partisan politics.

In addition to providing fairer representation, multi-member districts would effectively nullify the redistricting process. Contrary to popular belief, geography — not just partisan politics — plays a vital role in unintentionally gerrymandering districts. With Democrats tending to concentrate heavily in denser, urban areas and Republicans in rural areas, it is often impossible to draw fair, proportional and compact representative districts. The best way to counter partisan redistricting and gerrymandering is to render these processes obsolete. When representatives are elected proportionally, it becomes incredibly difficult to strategically gerrymander and divide voter groups. With significantly fewer possibilities for gerrymandering and political abuse, independent commissions can draw truly fair, compact districts. Voters, not courts and district drawers, would be entrusted with the power of electing officials.

However, by themselves, these districts wouldn’t sufficiently solve our issues. To supplement a multi-member district system, we should elect representatives through ranked-choice voting, a process in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. By allowing voters to select and rank multiple candidates, voters can make more informed votes based on policy and candidate quality rather than sole party affiliation. Under a ranked-choice system, all voters would be empowered.

Apply a proportional electoral system to a proportional redistricting system, and you get an electoral process that is proportional and representative of voters’ needs and wants.

Fair representation shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Our winner-take-all electoral system solely benefits incumbents and upholds a broken political binary. By placing such high stakes in individual candidates and district lines, we diminish political competition and deride third parties, who we often characterize as malign spoilers rather than legitimate contenders. A multi-member district system would empower Utahns from all walks of life and bring transparency to our elections.

By following in the footsteps of our neighbors, Utah can become a beacon of productive legislative democracy, demonstrating the efficacy of electoral reform to other states across the nation.

Our politicians must recognize that there is no way to truly “win” under our current system. By placing the will of the voters into the hands of courts and litigators, our democracy will continue to wilt.

Utah’s politicians must set their partisan interests aside and recognize the need for an alternative to our broken system.

Only then can our democracy begin to heal.

Eric Lu

Eric Lu is a senior at the Rowland Hall School in Salt Lake City.

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