Utah needs democracy, the Editorial Board writes, and that means a viable Democratic Party

Gerrymandering and habit must no longer be the excuses for a one-party state.

(Briana Scroggins | Special to The Tribune) Joshua Rush, a volunteer with the McMullin campaign, hands out placards during the Utah Democratic Convention at Cottonwood High School in Murray, Utah on Saturday, April 23, 2022.

“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

Will Rogers


Beautiful public lands, national parks, mountain ski resorts, red rock country. Check.

Top-flight health care facilities. Check.

Excellent, and relatively affordable, universities. Check.

A lively, artistic, welcoming capital city. Check.

An innovative, tech-oriented private sector. Check.

Democracy. Um, let us get back to you on that.

Oh, we had an election the other day. It was free and fair. No voter suppression. No stuffed ballot boxes. No armed vigilantes intimidating people at polling places.

Something else we didn’t see in most of Utah was a viable Democratic Party. That’s something we need to have a real two-party system, the kind that recruits, supports and funds candidates at all levels and gets voters educated, interested and active. The system that encourages both parties to hew to the sensible center rather than be pulled to extremes.

Total Utah voter turnout this year may struggle to top 50%. That’s well below the 75% achieved in the last off-year polling, when voters had reason to hope they mattered. In 2018 there was a close contest in the 4th Congressional District and voter initiatives to expand Medicaid, allow medical cannabis and provide for a fair, nonpartisan redistricting process.

The fact that the redistricting measure passed, and was promptly gutted by the Legislature, is a big reason why many voters don’t think their voice matters in Utah. Because, largely, it hasn’t.

What’s good about Utah comes in spite of its relative lack of democracy, not because of it. Arguments to the contrary should not be heard outside China’s Great Hall of the People.

Too many legislative and county elections in Utah were either uncontested or included only an incumbent and an unknown, under-financed challenger. In a few races in Salt Lake County, the Democrats had that advantage. In the rest of the state, it was Republicans steamrolling to victory.

The apparent outcome is that the Republican supermajority in the Utah House will grow from 58-17 to 61-14. In the Senate, the count is likely to remain 23 Republicans and six Democrats.

Republican lawmakers have used their unchecked power to draw Utah’s legislative districts in ways that made it all but impossible for them to lose. Such gerrymandering is a shameful tradition, but it is also about as old as American democracy itself and, at some point, it has to stop being an excuse for why we don’t have a two-party system in Utah.

Empty slots on ballots not only discourage voters from participating, they also mean that a political party - in our case, Democrats - isn’t building its bench. Isn’t working at the very grassroots level to boost candidates and activists that can be viable players, first at the local level, then in the Legislature, then in elections for statewide and national office.

Utah Democrats should take a look at the results of Tuesday’s elections. The national Democratic Party, and President Joe Biden’s agenda along with it, was declared all but dead before a single vote was cast.

But Democrats in other states ran hard with common-sense candidates and popular center-left platforms, a we’re-not-crazy approach that appealed to women and young voters - growing constituencies that exist and can be energized in Utah.

Even as some high-profile Senate races went to Republicans, Democrats held and, in a few cases, flipped House seats and governor’s offices. Republicans may still win control of Congress, but the widely forecast red wave became a trickle.

Each of Utah’s four gerrymandered congressional districts was won in a walk by its Republican incumbent. But Salt Lake County voters, split among all four districts, altogether favored largely unknown Democratic congressional candidates over established Republicans by a vote of 109,637 to 106,548 (as of Thursday night).

Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, once said that if Democrats don’t like the way legislative and congressional districts are drawn, they should try to win more elections and draw them differently. That may sound like saying that insomniacs just need to get more sleep, but it is how democracy is supposed to work.

There is no gerrymandering in statewide races. That includes the state’s 2022 marquee contest, in which two-term Republican U.S. Senator Mike Lee handily fought off a challenge from independent Evan McMullin.

Some are counting the fact that Lee won with a mere 55% percent of the vote, compared to the 68% majority he rang up in 2016, as a victory. In many other states this week, 55% in a statewide race would be considered a landslide. Which it is.

In hindsight, Utah Democrats’ decision to throw in the towel in the Senate race before it even began, putting all their chips on McMullin, seems an admission of weakness that hurt the party wherever it did field candidates, as well as its chances to build for the future.

But McMullin trounced Lee in Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties, so there are votes there to be mined by Democrats.

Complaining that Utah’s Democratic Party needs to get its act together in order to give real democracy a chance in this state may seem like being angry at a corpse because it won’t get up and dance.

But it is what Utah needs, and those who are dissatisfied with the current situation should pitch in and help.