Straight-party voting a ‘threat to democracy,’ top LDS leaders warn

First Presidency says such a practice is “inconsistent” with church teachings, urges members to study candidates and their “positions on important issues.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) “I voted” stickers in 2022. Top Latter-day Saint leaders are warning members against voting for candidates solely based on their political party.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is warning its members against straight-ticket balloting, stating that blindly voting for one political party without weighing individual candidates and their stances on important issues “is a threat to democracy” and inconsistent with the faith’s teachings.

A letter from the governing First Presidency read during some worship services this past Sunday urges Latter-day Saints to “spend the time needed to become informed about the issues and candidates you will be considering.”

“Merely voting a straight ticket or voting based on ‘tradition’ without careful study of candidates and their positions on important issues,” the letter explains, “is a threat to democracy and inconsistent with revealed standards,” pointing to a verse from the faith’s scriptural canon.

Doctrine and Covenants 98:10 proclaims that “honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently” to run the government.

The dispatch from the church’s top leaders — President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring — is remarkable for several reasons but primarily for the explicit rebuke of voting for political candidates based only on their party affiliation.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson, center, with his counselors, Dallin H. Oaks, left, and Henry B. Eyring, at General Conference on Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023.

Sam Brunson, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago who writes at the popular Latter-day Saint-centered website By Common Consent, said Tuesday the letter’s language was more direct than almost anything else regarding politics he has ever seen from the church brass.

“It’s very explicit about the idea that we shouldn’t use political affiliation as a proxy for the correct person. In Utah, especially among Mormons, what that means is just because there’s an ‘R’ [for Republican] beside their name doesn’t mean you need to vote for them,” Brunson said. “This one is really hard to ignore. It doesn’t say you should vote for a Democrat, by any means, but it very explicitly says just because they’re a Republican doesn’t mean that they’re the best person that you should vote for.”

For Utah Latter-day Saints, the admonition against straight-ticket voting means something far different than it did just a few years ago. Utah lawmakers removed the straight-party voting option from ballots just before the 2020 election.

Party leaders react

The message from church leaders will most likely be welcomed by Utah’s beleaguered Democrats, who long have struggled to break through the chokehold Republicans have held on the state’s electoral politics. Republicans are a supermajority in the Legislature and have won every statewide contest since 1998.

Utah Democratic Party Vice Chair Oscar Mata applauded the letter’s focus on agency, a cornerstone of Latter-day Saint doctrine.

“I welcome the leaders of the church reminding good members that they should use that agency and look at all candidates running for office,” Mata said in a statement. “We should encourage our neighbors and friends to do their research, using their own experiences and inspiration when considering who to vote for.”

Utah Republican Party Chairman Robert Axson voiced his support for the church’s counsel that voters should consider candidates before adding a partisan pitch of his own.

“I echo the importance of voters reviewing and considering candidates. I firmly believe that as people better engage in the process, many solutions to our challenges as a country will rise to the top,” Axson said. “It is important that people expect results rather than intentions. This is where I believe Republican policies have — and will — deliver for Utahns.”

Brunson was surprised by the forcefulness of the letter, especially since the church released updated guidelines about political neutrality just last week. Absent from that revision was any mention of the dangers posed by straight-ticket voting.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, speaks at General Conference about the U.S. Constitution on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021.

The letter reaffirms the Salt Lake City-based faith’s neutrality regarding political parties and issues, while adding that it “may occasionally post information about particular issues that directly affect the mission, teachings or operations of the church or that church leaders believe are essential to preserving democracy or the essential functioning of the United States Constitution.”

The message also reminds members that their “political choices and affiliations should not be the subject of any teaching or advocating in church settings.”

The unambiguous language suggests a growing discomfort among church leaders with the increasing incivility and polarizing nature of American politics, and it follows other similar politically themed warnings.

In December 2020, an update to the church’s General Handbook cautioned members about avoiding misinformation and urged them to seek “credible, reliable and factual sources of information.”

Oaks’ warning

Latter-day Saint leaders initially responded to the Jan. 6 insurrection and attack on the U.S. Capitol in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss by pointing to an October 2020 General Conference sermon from Oaks. The former Utah Supreme Court justice warned of the threat of post-election violence.

A news release a few days later condemned politically related violence, reminding members that “no political or other affiliation” should supersede the duty to treat others with “respect, dignity and love.”

In April 2021 General Conference, Oaks told the faithful that defending the Constitution may require members to go against their partisan political affiliation by supporting a candidate they may have disagreements with on some policy matters.

“There are many political issues, and no party, platform or individual candidate can satisfy all personal preferences,” Oaks said. “Each citizen must therefore decide which issues are most important to him or her at any particular time. … Such independent actions will sometimes require voters to support candidates or political parties or platforms whose other positions they cannot approve.”

(Photo courtesy of Sam Brunson) Sam Brunson, tax law professor at Loyola University Chicago, was surprise by the forceful language in the latest letter from top Latter-day Saint leaders about the perils of straight-party voting.

Brunson also was struck by Sunday’s letter because it was much more direct than any previous ones about how members should engage in the political arena.

“Maybe they’ve learned over the course of making some statements that weren’t as explicit that members were willing to ignore,” the law professor said, “that when they care about something, they need to speak in explicit terms.”

There is anecdotal evidence, mostly from social media, that not every congregation read or even received the letter from leaders before Sunday. That could be attributed to an administrative delay.

The letter comes almost a year and a half before the 2024 presidential election, though municipal ballots are on the slate this year. Church leaders typically issue a message stressing the importance of civic engagement and voting a few weeks before an election in even-numbered years. A church spokesperson told The Salt Lake Tribune the overall message is intended for a worldwide audience but that political calendars in other countries don’t necessarily match the United States.

Brunson says he will be eagerly watching to see if Latter-day Saints receive a similar message ahead of next year’s balloting.