To send a neutral political message, LDS apostles should register as independents, says Dem Ben McAdams

Former congressman also singles out “partisan gerrymandering,” casts it as a “moral issue.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams speaks in Salt Lake City in April 2023. The Latter-day Saint Democrat says straight-ticket voting is eroding democracy.

Despite their church regularly proclaiming its political neutrality, Latter-day Saints have been among the most reliably Republican voting blocs — with a number of members either overtly casting a straight GOP ticket or, in essence, doing so by simply backing the candidates with an “R” after their names.

Now the governing First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has issued a strongly worded letter to U.S. members, denouncing strict party-line balloting.

“Merely voting a straight ticket or voting based on ‘tradition’ without careful study of candidates and their positions on important issues,” the top leaders warned, “is a threat to democracy and inconsistent with revealed standards.”

Could this blunt message begin to change the faith’s voting dynamic? Will more members, especially in red states like Utah, start to back Democrats or office seekers from other parties?

Here are excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s recent “Mormon Land” podcast with a prominent Latter-day Saint Democrat, Ben McAdams, an ex-congressman from Utah and a former Salt Lake County mayor, who praised church leaders’ directive against “straight-ticket voting” and urged them to address partisan gerrymandering by casting it as a “moral issue.”

What was your initial reaction to this First Presidency letter?

I was happy to see this statement. It’s not inconsistent with what they’ve been saying for many years [about] neutrality. The letter did go a little bit further, saying that we shouldn’t vote for anybody just based on their party and encouraging people to look at candidates from other parties. I would say it’s a baby step. I didn’t feel the earth shake or that the prospects of Utah Democrats changed dramatically. But I think it’s the right message, and it’s an important message.

Do you agree that straight-ticket voting is a ‘threat to democracy?’

Yes, absolutely. The beauty of our American experiment as a democratic system is, first of all, that people come together to settle their differences through elections rather than violence.…Every elected official should have that at the forefront of their mind. What [do] constituents want? Am I representing them? And can I win reelection by doing what they want? Straight-party voting means that all you have to do is become the nominee of your party, and you will be elected? I think it makes people careless…and caters to the extremes. We’re seeing that throughout the country. People know that all they have to do to win reelection is …get that “R” or “D” next to their name, and they sail through to election. What we’re seeing is the foundations of our democracy erode.

What frustrated you when you were running for office as a Latter-day Saint Democrat in Utah?

I’ve run for many elections and won many elections that I shouldn’t have won, and lost elections, lost my most recent election…. But I’ll tell you, bringing it back to faith, we know, statistically, that 23%, 24%, 25% of members of the church will vote for a Democrat. And, you know, I’m a practicing member of the church. I was in the bishopric in my ward until recently I was called the high council. People intuitively think that that means that I’m going to get 50% of the LDS vote. In reality, we see little to no measurable difference. So I think one thing that’s frustrating is members of the church vote straight ticket. They vote reliably and solidly Republican. And it doesn’t matter what the opponent is doing, or how good the Democrat is, they’re going to reliably vote Republican. And I think that is frustrating for candidates to see good candidates lose or bad Republican candidates win. I will say I don’t mean to single out Republicans, I think there are good and bad people in both parties. But I think that’s a disservice to our politics here in Utah and elsewhere, where you have large LDS membership that could be influential in an election. I think it’s not only bad for politics, I think it’s bad for the church. The church gets written off by both parties. The Democrats who say, “They’re never going to vote for us,” and the Republicans who say, “They’ll always vote for us.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben McAdams speaks at a Democratic convention in 2018.

How did your religion ever become an obstacle for you within the party?

There are some who certainly maybe grew up LDS and aren’t currently or moved here from out of state and they feel excluded from a culture and a majority that is so prevalent in Utah that seems to, if not the church, but maybe members of the church, who seem to drive policy on a basis of faith, that they feel excluded, and I think many of them find refuge in the Democratic Party. And so I would say, it’s rare, but there are people certainly who say, “Hey, this is our club, what are you doing here? You have a club, go back to your club and let us have ours.”

What effect, if any, will this letter have on Latter-day Saint voters?

Honestly, I’m not optimistic that it [will have] a big impact. You need to look at this in the broader context of everything that’s happening. So this statement was excellent. And as I said, it’s not alone. In particular, some of the comments made by Elder [Dallin H.] Oaks in General Conference, talking about the need for civility and the need to stand up to extremism. There is a pattern that’s developing but it’s a pitter-patter at this point. But you have far more visible, loud voices on the other side. They’re not necessarily representative of the church, but they anoint themselves to speak on behalf of the church. You have general authorities emeritus, showing up at right-wing events. General authorities of the church are mostly registered Republicans. There’s been a few in recent years who are registered as independents. I’d love to see everyone registered as an independent [unaffiliated]. But it’s going to take something more than this [statement] to move the statistic from 23% willing to vote for a Democrat to where it would be 50/50. [I urge] members of the church to find somebody from the other party who you can vote for. That’s something I’ve tried to do out of principle — not just vote for Democrats but find somebody from the other party, whom I like, whom I think could do a good job.

What more could the church do to create exactly what you’re talking about — achieve more political balance?

I’d like to see more people speaking up. As much as I’m a Democrat and would love to see more members of the church move to the Democratic Party, I don’t want my church leaders to say, “you should vote for Democrats,” any more than I want them to say, “You should vote for Republicans.” But to speak up for political diversity. Let’s not be ostracizing members of the church who have a different political background. Let’s be welcoming of different ideas….I know that [top church leaders] are selective in the political issues that they weigh in on, and I would want them to continue to be selective. But one that is really important is the redistricting process. I know that’s process oriented. But especially in the redistricting of 2021 here in Utah, it was so egregious. It really took the vote away from so many people, because they drew the boundaries in a way that really only one candidate in one party will win an election.…For a century, [we’ve told people], “If you don’t like your representative, vote them out.” But if the rules are made in such a way that you can’t vote them out, people look for other ways to speak out.…It is a moral issue.

How would the church benefit from more political balance among members?

When I was elected in 2018, the Democrats took the House. I was the only active member of the church who was a Democrat. I was a freshman Democrat in a new House. There were five Democrats elected in Orange County and members of the church make up a large segment of the voting population of that county but [the representatives] didn’t see members of the church as a swing vote — they saw them as the other side of the vote. If we were a little bit more open to people of different partisan makeups, the church can have a lot of influence with both parties. I don’t think we want to have our influence tied to only one political party. Both parties then will take us for granted.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gérald Caussé, presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center, then-Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, then-Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski and others cut the ribbon to mark the opening of a new office tower in Salt Lake City in 2016.

The First Presidency letter tells members and leaders to check their politics at the church door but that is frequently violated. What would ensure that directive is actually followed by members?

A lot of members think that’s just what [leaders] have to say but they don’t really mean that. [These members believe the leaders] have to say that they’re not political, but “we know what they really think.” You can’t blame people for feeling that way. Because there are voices within the church — not President [Russell M.] Nelson or members of the Twelve [apostles] but some Seventies or general authorities emeritus — who absolutely use their church positions to advocate for political causes that are right-wing aligned.…As much as I value the statement and the letter that was put out, it’s going to take something a little bit more bold, a little bit more visible. I don’t know that voters who … don’t even read a newspaper, [are] barely politically informed, I don’t know that they’re going to pick up the nuances of this letter.

Do you see yourself running for office again?

I love public service. It’s in my blood. It is something that I would love…I’m turning 49 this year. I think I’ve still got a lot of life ahead of me, I hope. So I’d love to get back in at some point.

To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland.

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