Non-Republicans cheated out of fair representation

Rob Latham // Published January 5, 2008 in Salt Lake Tribune
Utah Republican Party Chairman Stan Lockhart claims (Tribune, Dec. 29) that a majority of Utahns vote for his political party's candidates because they represent the morals and ideals of Utahns.

I offer an alternative explanation for the Utah GOP's electoral success: Republican and Democratic legislators and governors have cheated Utah voters out of fair elections.
Through my experience as a lobbyist and political candidate, I've interacted with dozens of elected officials in Utah and believe the vast majority do the best they know how.

Yet by failing to upgrade Utah's election design to the more competitive and representative methods used by most of the world's democracies, incumbent politicians display the kind of behavior associated with monopolists.

Lockhart asks an interesting question: Why don't non-incumbent political parties elect any candidates to office despite receiving a small percentage of the vote?

First, according to ballot access expert Richard Winger, in the past 30 years at least 166 non-Democratic, non-Republican Americans have been elected to partisan state office. So the premise to Lockhart's question is false.

But second and more important, the plurality-rule election system used throughout most of the United States is the culprit that usually leaves independent voters, who constitute a majority of registered voters in Utah, unrepresented.

Moreover, the single-member district, winner-take-all electoral system makes gerrymandering possible and disparities between votes received and seats awarded likely.

Since 1992, the disparity between seats and votes in elections for the Utah House of Representatives has always resulted in over-representation for Republicans and under-representation for Democrats and others. It doesn't matter whether one counts all races or just those that are contested.     

A question for Lockhart and his partisans: Why did the Libertarian Party of Costa Rica win about 10 percent of the seats in that country's national legislature in 2006, despite receiving about 10 percent of the vote?
It could be that Costa Rica's multiparty electoral method better serves the democratic principles articulated by second U.S. President John Adams, who wrote that a "representative assembly . . . should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason and act like them."
The Utah Legislature's membership is less like an exact portrait and more like a fun-house mirror when held up against the state's population.
Utah Democrats seem loathe to support gerrymander-proof proportional electoral systems, perhaps because Democrats gerrymander in states where they are the majority.
Where they have been tried, bipartisan or "independent" redistricting commissions have disappointed.
Should the state's leaders desire to restore some credibility to the claim that they are carrying out the "will of the people" through the "consent of the governed," I encourage them to support the creation of a citizens' assembly on electoral reform here in Utah similar to one convened in British Columbia in 2004.
That assembly recommended trading in the single-member district, winner-take-all system for a multimember district, proportional system.
The people of Utah shouldn't expect incumbents to change the rules that put them in power. But voters deserve to know when they're getting taken, and they are.
ROB LATHAM is the current chairman of the Libertarian Organizing Committee in Utah and an attorney based in Davis County.