Friday, January 8, 2016

QUALITY CONTROL: The Case for Partisan Candidate-Specific Voting


I recently signed on as the Republican co-sponsor of a bill to change our ballots to allow only candidate-specific voting in partisan races.  This bill would stop the practice of 'straight ticket' voting.

HB119 is sponsored by my House Democratic colleague Patrice Arent.  FOX 13 recently interviewed her and the Republican and Democrat Party Chiefs.  Here is that video:


Straight ticket voting allows a person to vote for a political party rather than a candidate. While at first glance this seems like a reasonable thing to permit, in the end it provides for a less robust and healthy civic discourse.

FULL DISCLOSURE:  Part of my bias against straight ticket voting is that I lost my first election because of it.  In 2008 I ran against a 10-year Democrat incumbent.  We ran a tireless campaign only to lose by 200 votes.  My district at that time was gerrymandered specifically to give safe harbor to a Democrat candidate.  So, it was an uphill battle.  Yet, I was able to persuade many people of Democrat persuasion to support me.  Why?  It wasn't because I was a liberal guy, but rather I was able to speak with them on their doorstep and find common ground where it existed.  So, its no surprise that scenes like this were common in downtown Ogden in 2008.


Clearly, things were so bad that many Democrats felt their best option at that time was to vote for a Republican.  So, what happened on election day?  A significant proportion of voters voted straight ticket (in this case Democrat) not thinking that there was this lonely Republican guy on the ballot needing their specific attention.  In my follow up with voters, I heard from many of them that they had voted for me while at the same time telling me how they proudly voted straight ticket Democrat.  Discouraging to say the least.

So, this is an old story and we know how it ultimately ended.  But, besides my own personal grievance, why would eliminating straight ticket voting and moving to partisan candidate-specific voting be a good idea for Utah?  Here are some points.

Political Branding

First, political parties of all varieties are a brand name.  The brand name is supposed to mean something.  Before SB54, political parties had control over the candidate nominating process which created some quality control to determine which candidates made it on the ballot.  Wild flaming liberal candidates were weeded from the Republican ballots and the boring lifeless conservatives were weeded from the Democrat ballots.  All this was done through the caucus-convention system which provided a forum for debate and inquisition.  The new "signature route" to the primary ballot provides an end-run around that discovery process and puts people on the ballot who may or may not share the philosophy of their declared political party.  In other words, the political parties have lost a large degree of quality control over who is on the ballot.

Educated Voters

The loss of control means that much of the vetting process must be done by individual voters rather than informed participants in the sieve of the caucus-convention system.  Unfortunately, straight ticket voting detracts from this delicate differentiation process.  Instead, instituting partisan, candidate-specific voting creates an environment that encourages voters to make informed choices.  An educated electorate makes better candidate choices.

Incentive for Quality Candidates

The other benefit to eliminating straight ticket voting is that it will put pressure on political parties to recruit better candidates.  Voting for a candidate with a "D" or "R" next to their name doesn't mean much if it doesn't mean anything to the candidate themselves.  So, parties have an incentive to find and recruit candidates that share their same political values and bring those candidates forward for consideration.  

Here is a copy of the bill as it us currently written:




Our new system provides plenty of opportunity for gaming the election process.  Eliminating straight ticket voting helps voters to stop that from happening.  I look forward to debating this issue and hopefully bring better outcomes to an increasingly complicated election process.  


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