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Why can’t Utah get rid of straight-ticket voting?

The straight party voting option, which allows voters to vote for every candidate in a single political party, on the 2012 ballot. (KSL)

ANALYSIS

Utah is one of only eight states that allow straight-ticket voting. With a single press of a button, voters in Utah can cast their vote for every single candidate a political party puts on the ballot.

It doesn’t matter if you know their policies, their records, or even their names. All you have to do is press a button, and every Republican – or every Democrat – in a federal, state, or local race will get your vote.

It’s a controversial way of voting; one that critics say encourages towing the party line and sabotages every candidate who isn’t in a major party.

It’s also one that most states have abandoned. Twelve states have abolished straight-ticket voting in the last 20 years alone, leaving Utah one of the few states that still use it.

But that’s not for lack of trying. Over the last two years alone, the House of Representatives has tried to get rid of straight-ticket voting twice. But every time, the idea has been pushed out of office with little more than a dismissive shrug.

What’s going on? Why can’t Utah get rid of an idea that is so incredibly unpopular?

The party that won thousands of votes by mistake

The Personal Choice Party received 27,304 straight ticket votes in 2006. Most of those votes were cast by accident. (KSL-TV)

The closest anyone ever came to getting changing Utah’s voting laws was Rep. Patrice Arent. At the beginning of 2016, Rep. Arent tried to pass a bill that would have put an end to straight ticket voting.

A disaster in 2006 prompted the bill. That year, a little-known party called the “Personal Choice Party” had won 14 percent of the vote in Salt Lake County, purely because confused voters hit the wrong button by mistake.

Thousands of Utah voters mistook the “Personal Choice” button as a way to tell the voting machine they wanted to personally choose the candidates they voted for. And because of that mistake, they ended up casting nearly every vote they had on a political party they didn’t even know existed.

Personal Choice Party Senate candidate Roger Price. (KSL-TV)

Even the Personal Choice Party’s Senate candidate, Roger Price, didn’t think he should win.

“I don’t know what I would have done if I’d got elected senator,” Price told KSL after the debacle. “I’d throw my hands up and say, ‘Oh, what the heck do I do now?'”

Nonetheless, 27,304 voters cast a straight-ticket vote for Price and anyone else under his banner, purely by accident. So many people made the mistake that, in ten counties, Price even beat out the Democratic Party.

Rep. Patrice Arent’s fight

Patrice Arent

Dec. 27, 2016 file photo of Rep. Patrice Arent, who tried to put an end to straight ticket voting in 2016. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Ten years later, that fiasco inspired Rep. Arent to wage a war on straight-ticket voting. Rep. Arent put forward House Bill 119, her attempt to amend Utah’s voting laws to make sure that a disaster like that never happened again.

Rep. Arent put up the best fight she could against what she called the “outdated practice” of straight-ticket voting, bringing in members of the League of Women Voters and the Elections Director from Salt Lake County to speak on her behalf.

But the chairman of Republican Party, James Evans, spoke against her himself, telling the House: “Let’s not take away a convenience from voters because they identify with a particular political party.”

Whether because of the power of Evans’s words or his position, the overwhelmingly Republican room voted against the bill. Rep. Arent, a Democrat, won the support of two Republicans, but it wasn’t enough. The idea died on the floor.

The Republican who fought straight-ticket voting

Rep. Bruce Cutler, who spoke out against straight-ticket voting in late 2017. (Bruce Cutler/YouTube)

A Republican was the next to try. At the tail end of 2017, Rep. Bruce Cutler declared his intention to put an end to straight ticket voting, and, this time, the new Republican Chairman didn’t take a stance on the idea. To many, it seemed like a real chance for Utah to reform its laws.

Rep. Cutler says that he was inspired to fight straight-ticket voting when, during an international conference, he realized that Utah was one of only a few states that still allowed it.

“When I told them that we do it, the others said, ‘You do what?’” Rep. Cutler says. Their shock, he says, made him realize that it was worth looking into getting rid of the practice.

Rep. Cutler realized that, strategically, straight-ticket voting was helping his party stay in power. Still, he believed that it was the right thing to do.

“I vote for the individual, not the party,” Rep. Cutler says. And he wants to make sure that he’s getting voted in by people who are informed.

In the end, though, Rep. Cutler abandoned his bill before ever putting it forward. After talking to the other representatives and looking into Rep. Arent’s failed bill, his spirit wavered.

“There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm for it,” Rep. Cutler says. “I just set it aside.”

The future of straight-ticket voting

straight ticket voting

The straight-ticket voting option on a 2012 Utah election ballot. (KSL)

With the 2018 midterm elections closing in soon, Utah remains one of the few states to still allow straight-ticket voting.

Its greatest flaw is precisely what keeps it alive. It gives an unfair advantage to the party in power, and, as result, there’s little incentive for those in power to vote it out.

It isn’t a partisan issue; it’s a power issue. In Utah, where the Republican party is usually in power, Republicans usually vote to keep straight party voting in effect; but in Michigan, where the Democrats usually win, the Republicans are the ones fighting to end it.

For Utah’s Republicans, getting right of straight party voting would be shooting themselves in the foot. There are politicians in office right now who get more than half of their votes from straight-ticket voters, many of who don’t even realize they’re giving them their votes.

Losing those straight-ticket votes can cost the people in power their seats – and, so far, less than half-a-dozen members of House of Representatives have been willing to take that risk.

Rep. Bruce Cutler says he would be open to co-sponsoring a bill against straight-ticket voting if another politician showed an interest in the idea.

But until someone puts that bill forward, straight-ticket voting isn’t going away.