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Electoral diversity: Utah leans red, but how are the other voices heard on Election Day?


SALT LAKE CITY — On Monday, a strange thing will occur during the Utah 2nd Congressional debate: three people will be on stage. That’ll be the only debate during this general election cycle that will feature a candidate that isn’t running as Democrat or Republican.

Check your ballot (they were sent out on Tuesday), and you’ll see plenty of other representatives of other parties.

Ever heard of Greg Duerden of the Independent American Party? He wants to be the next governor — and wants to pay each K-12 teacher a national median wage (which is about $78,000 in 2020). What about Dr. Daniel Cottam, a Libertarian? He’s on the ballot to be governor, too — and wants to remove state boundaries when it comes to health care. But neither was invited to debate Spencer Cox and Chris Peterson.

From lack of representation in debates to districts that many would call gerrymandered, the voters of Utah who don’t fit into the two major parties (not too mention the number of Democrats — especially those outside of District 4) have a hard time feeling that their voice is heard on Election Day.

“We’ve unfortunately allowed the Democrats and Republicans together to take control of our debate structure,” said Barry Short, chair of the Utah Libertarian Party and lieutenant governor candidate. “And I think that does not serve the people of this state or the rest of the country well at all.”

And you could even put a number on how many in the state it has failed. There are 554,154 active voters (about 33%) who are not registered to either of the major two parties. So while the Democrats and Republicans make up the majority of the state’s voting pool (with much of that number learning red), there’s still a sizable amount of people that aren’t necessarily being represented.

How do those people make their voices truly heard? That’s a question Short has been asking for a long time.

People like Short have spent years trying to fix what they see as a broken system. And election time just serves as a reminder of the frustration: The debates blocking most of his party’s and other parties’ candidates, the lack of other ideas being shared, the people who have chosen a party and stick with it no matter what, and the list goes on.

“It really discourages people,” Short said. “We see it in voter turnout because the number of people who choose not to vote, actually, typically exceeds the number of people nationally, who vote for either the Republican or the Democrat.”

So what is Short’s advice to unenthused voters or the ones who feel their voice won’t actually be heard?

“I think the best thing you could do in the system that we have is to be sure to go out there and vote for the person you most want to hold the office,” Short said. “I mean, that is the idea behind having elections. You’re supposed to be voting for the person who actually want to do the job.”

He said it’s important candidates know that they don’t have unanimous support — and that they represent people that don’t always agree with them.

It’s not news to say Utah is Republican-leaning. The state hasn’t had a non-Republican governor in 35 years, the Legislature is made up of 82 Republicans to just 22 Democrats, and Utah has just one representative in DC who doesn’t run with R by his name (Ben McAdams). It’s gotten to a point that Rep. Chris Stewart didn’t even send in a profile for the state’s official general election voting guide. But should it be that imbalanced?

Of the 1.6 million active voters in the state, nearly half (798,132) aren’t registered as a Republican. That doesn’t mean they aren’t voting for Republican candidates, but it shows there might be more electoral diversity than what is commonly thought.

“I know it’s hard — a lot of these districts are gerrymandered, that have really benefited the Republicans, especially on the federal level and on the state level,” Utah Democratic Party chair Matthew Patterson said. “You’ve seen these districts drawn to make sure that there’s one-party dominance.”

Patterson pointed to congressional districts all taking parts of Salt Lake County and then branching out into rural Utah. He said that’s not fair for people in Salt Lake or the people in places like St. George and Nephi.

“When you draw districts like that, it takes away a bit of the competitive edge sometimes and that can dampen turnout,” Patterson said. “And that really hurts the process. If you draw more competitive districts, it engages people more, I think it gets better candidates to run, it just opens up the dialogue for these races. It makes them more competitive, gets people more engaged and I think that’s a good thing for democracy.”

For those looking for different drawn districts, the 2020 election is important on another level. Next year, state lawmakers will go through the process of redrawing the districts.

“Go out and vote for change in their districts, starting at the county level all the way up to the state level,” Patterson said.

A change in the ballot is leading Libertarians, Democrats, Green Party members, really all non-Republicans, hopeful that voting will be more thoughtful this year. For the first time, voters won’t be able to vote a straight party ticket just by filling out one circle on their ballot. Sure, you could vote for every Republican or Democrat or Libertarian, but you have to vote individually.

“We do think people will be more thoughtful about it,” Short said. “We also think that the people who are less thoughtful about it may in fact choose not to vote in some of the down-ticket races and that frankly is OK with us.”

And with a high number of Utahns expected to vote via mail-in ballot, it allows for more research while voting. Research that, who knows, may lead to some voting against the normal party lines — at least that’s what a number of non-Red Utahns are hoping.

“They do in fact have a better opportunity to do research and actually look into candidates,” Short said.

And on Monday, they’ll get to hear more than two when Libertarian J. Robert Latham debates Rep. Stewart and Democratic hopeful Kael Weston. At least then a third party’s voice will be heard.

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