The increasing polarization of the political process in Utah and across the nation is the next issue identified by the Utah Foundation as part of its Utah Priorities Project. In their open-ended survey, voters ranked partisan politics the 8th most important concern.
A former president who also served for many years in Congress once said, “Truth is the glue that holds government together. Compromise is the oil that makes government go.” Over the past several years, it has seemed at times that government was pretty low on that oil -- about ready to seize up.
That high level of partisan conflict is new on the Utah Priorities Project of issues identified by Utah voters. Utah Foundation researcher Morgan Lyon Cotti says Congress is the area voters look at first as an example of how partisan bickering is gumming up the works.
"There’s actually statistics and data that back this up," Cotti tells KUER's Dan Bammes. "We see that the difference between the two major parties in Congress – that gap between their two average ideologies – is larger than it has been at any time since Reconstruction.
Dan: "How do you measure that?"
"There’s a couple of political scientists that have figured out a way to measure ideology of each member of Congress, and each year they poll all the Republicans and all of the Democrats and get that average score. And we see that the difference between those two . . . is pretty wide right now."
A Utah Foundation report released last year also suggested Utah’s unique caucus and convention system for nominating candidates may be discouraging some voters and keeping them away from the polls. Utah’s voter turnout has dropped from 67-percent in 1992 to just 50-percent in 2008. Kirk Jowers, the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said on KUER’s Radio West in December that the system gives convention delegates a lot of power. That means candidates spend a lot of their time focusing on a relatively small group of voters who often hold views far out of the mainstream.
"We focus all of this attention on a very few delegates, and if they can get over 60-percent there, they don’t have to face a primary," Jowers said. "And the way our state is set up demographically, and you add in redistricting and everything else, there are very few general elections that truly matter."
The battle over drawing new legislative districts and other political boundaries in Utah comes up every ten years. The Utah legislature had that job, and Democrats charged that the Republican majority was drawing maps to suit themselves and making important decisions behind closed doors. That’s led to a battle over access to the public records of those deliberations, but the chairman of Utah’s Republican Party, Thomas Wright says that’s mostly political theater.
"What gets reported in the media and how that gets reported is greatly damaging to voter turnout in Utah, and I think it’s sad, because, at the end of the day, only two Democrats voted against those maps and Democrats were heavily involved in drawing those lines."
Wright says Republicans and Democrats made a serious effort to increase participation in this year’s party caucuses, and they had significantly higher attendance this year. Right now, he says the party is working hard to increase voter turnout.
The Utah Foundation research report on strident partisan politics as an issue in this year’s election is available on its website at utahfoundation.org
Oh, and that former president who called compromise the “oil” of government? That was Gerald Ford, who served as minority leader in the U-S House of Representatives for eight years.