Tribune Editorial: Urge to suppress democracy alive and well in Utah

Utah Republicans don’t engage in voter suppression so much as candidate suppression.

In all but the purest democracies, the rule of the many by the few is inevitable. It is just not practical to put every question before the whole of the people in an unending series of plebiscites and referenda. Instead, the people choose those who will rule in their stead — city councils, state and federal legislatures, chief executives at all levels.

But part of the deal has always been that the selection of those who hold the joysticks of power will belong to the people. All of the people. Or as many of them as we can register and who can trouble themselves to vote.

Utah’s record on this basic axiom of democracy has been mixed. And, if a few bills now before the Legislature become law, it will only get worse.

Our state is not among those that have, mostly through the efforts of state-level Republicans, gone retrograde on efforts to make it easier for more people to vote. Utah has added, expanded and maintained such open democracy methods as online registration, early voting and voting by mail.

But Utah does not practice voter suppression so much as candidate suppression, a process of running the party nominating process through a closed cabal of party regulars and ideologues, which discourages voter participation and confidence in the system.

In 2014, under pressure from the pending “Count My Vote” citizen initiative, the Utah Legislature approved Senate Bill 54. That measure took from the Republican and Democratic party structures the sole power to decide which candidates would appear on primary election ballots and added an alternative path to the primary, gathering signatures on petitions.

The SB54 system is both popular and effective. A 2019 Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll showed that voters favored keeping it by a margin of 56-31 percent. And, now that more voters see that their ballot actually matters, Utah has climbed from one of the worst states in the nation in terms of voter participation to one of the best.

Still, Republicans have been trying from the start to undo SB54 and return the power to nominate to the anti-democratic caucus and convention system.

This year’s effort is Sen. Dan McCay’s Senate Bill 205, which would allow parties to opt out of the petition path and use only the caucus/convention system. Allowing Republican insiders to kill the petition route to the ballot is of special interest to Sen. Mike Lee and his supporters, as a convention-only system would all but kill the chances of a more moderate Republican candidate putting up a credible challenge to a third Lee term.

The argument against the SB54 process is that political parties are private associations that should be able to set their own rules. And they can set their own rules, for things like who will be their chairman and how they spend their money.

But ballots — primary and general — are the property of the state and its people. They are taxpayer-funded and belong to the voters, not to any political party. This is even more important in a state, such as this one, where just getting on the ballot as a Republican is, in all but a few neighborhoods, an assurance of being elected.

SB205 should not be approved and, if it is approved, Gov. Spencer Cox should veto it.

Another measure designed to water down the power of the people in favor of the power of political activists is House Bill 197. That’s the bill that would make it more difficult for individual voters to change their party affiliation because, according to sponsor Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, monkey-wrenching Democrats are registering as Republicans to vote in primaries and skew the results.

There is no evidence that that is happening. A study from the Electoral Innovation Lab at Princeton University specifically looked at HB197 and at voter registration records from 2016 and 2020. The study found no basis in fact for the idea that rogue Democrats are registering as Republicans, changing the outcome of the process, then scurrying back to the Democratic fold before anyone notices.

At worst, the current law governing how and when voters can switch their registration offers more Utahns — who increasingly register as unaffiliated — the opportunity to influence the electoral process. Which is kind of the definition of democracy.

Republicans across the nation are promoting the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was rigged.

If anything, it is measures such as HB197 and SB205 that seek to rig elections. Neither of them should become law.