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Guest opinion: Are 62% of Utahns ‘extremists’?

Utah has become unaffordable because of an election process many good candidates can’t afford

By Chris Null - | Jun 13, 2024

Courtesy photo

Chris Null

Labels like “far right” and “far left” get thrown around so much these days that they perhaps don’t mean anything anymore. How “far” one person’s worldview is from another’s is a matter of perspective.

But if 62% of people agree on something, that’s the mainstream.

This is the datapoint I hope Utahns have fresh in their mind when they vote this June. The primary for the party nominations is June 25. Ballots have already landed in many Utahns’ mailboxes to decide the direction of our communities and state for the next several years.

For all the pundits watching, don’t expect business as usual.

In a survey released April 30, 62% of Utahns said the state is on the wrong track. This is the first time a majority of Utahns have ever said this about our state. Part of the Utah Foundation’s policy project, the survey found that voters’ top two issues were housing affordability and politicians not listening to voters.

These two issues are not unconnected given that most of state government is run by the real estate industry. As with any business, their main priority is their own profits. As recently as 2016, Utah was the sixth best in the nation for housing affordability, but last year, we dropped to 51st — the absolute worst.

How did that change?

What changed is the way that Utahns select their leaders. Historically, Utah has used a caucus system whereby neighbors come together in early March to select delegates who will represent them at the state convention in late April. Delegates assume the strong responsibility on behalf of their communities to interview and research each candidate, including the less glamorous elected positions.

(How many Utahns know what the state surveyor does, let alone who’s running for it?)

The vast majority of delegates take this responsibility very seriously, and candidates are expected to make themselves accessible to all the delegates in this process that their parties have established. If one candidate can win 60% or more at the convention, they automatically become their party’s nominee. If not, the two highest vote-winners advance to a primary which is selected by the whole party membership.

The idea is that delegates who interview candidates for office will do a more diligent job than the broader voting public, many of whom can’t (or shouldn’t be expected) to do that much research. This process flattens the enormous advantage usually possessed by richer candidates — including powerful incumbents, which circumvents the need for term limits.

With tiny warchests, Jason Chaffetz beat Rep. Chris Cannon in 2008 and Mike Lee beat Sen. Bob Bennett in 2012. Which is why the state Legislature changed the rules.

Ten years ago, the Legislature crafted Senate Bill 54, which allowed candidates with enough money to circumvent the convention system. S.B. 54 empowers rich candidates to gather signatures — a process that costs upward of $300,000 for a statewide race — to get on their party’s ballot, essentially buying their way into elections which they can sway with expensive superficialities like billboards or ads during “Jeopardy.”

And in Utah, the easiest way to get campaign donations is to bend the knee to real estate developers.

The excessive influence of money in politics is something everyone agrees on: 85% of Americans — both Republicans and Democrats — told Pew Research that the cost of political campaigns makes it hard for good people to run for office.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that high-information delegates are furious with those for-profit politicians who circumvent the caucus system to buy their way onto the ballot. Much ado was made following the Utah GOP state convention on April 27 that many candidates — notably Gov. Spencer Cox — were booed by the delegates. Media commentary at the time universally defended politicians and attacked the voters, labeling them “extremists” and worse.

The purpose of a free press in America has always been to advocate on behalf of normal people while holding those in power accountable — “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” was the journalists’ mantra — but now, apparently, many in today’s press do the opposite. Again, in a study released just days after the convention, 62% of Utahns said the state’s on the wrong track. Giving a money advantage to political donors is what got us here.

Voices are raised when voices go unheard. When someone isn’t listening, you raise your voice. If you don’t, you end up on the wrong track. That’s why this June, I urge everyone to vote for the candidates that your community-appointed delegates chose at their April conventions. If we continue to vote for for-profit politicians, we can’t be surprised when they sell us out.

Chris Null is chair of the Salt Lake County Republican Party.

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