It is always surprising to me when staunch Republicans tell me how much they like Jim Matheson. Sometimes they will add that it is a good thing to have a Democrat representing Utah. Since they never say that about any other well-known Utah Democrat, I get the impression that Matheson is their token Democrat.
They don't want to seem like down-the-line partisan Republicans, so they cast one vote for a Democrat, usually Matheson. The recent election results bear that out. No Democrat for statewide or federal office this year won more than 35 percent of the vote, except Matheson, who won 49 percent. Tokenism in voting may make some Republicans feel good about not being too partisan, but it doesn't sustain a two-party system.
What does tokenism do to hinder a two-party system? A token vote for just one Democrat means only token opposition at election time. That means voters get no choice on the ballot. Outside of Salt Lake County, typically, at best they have a choice between a well-funded incumbent Republican and a non-viable Democratic challenger. At worst, they have no choice other than a Republican.
A strong opposition party forces Republicans to campaign. They go door to door, listen to voters' concerns, and sweat over whether they will win. But if Republicans know many voters will only vote for one Democrat, then they feel safe at election time. They will not campaign actively and court voters because they don't have to. That is the reality in most of the state.
A token vote for just one Democrat means a token government watchdog. In a healthy two-party system, each party checks the other in government. But that check is missing in Utah. Republicans outnumber Democrats so completely in the Legislature that Democrats cannot effectively counterbalance what Republicans do. By voting almost exclusively for Republicans, voters remove a vital check on their own government officials. As a result, Republicans can act against the voters' will in areas such as public education spending, closed caucuses, legislative gerrymandering and ethics reform without worrying about an opposition party checking them.
A token vote for just one Democrat means no public policy alternatives for the voters. When Democrats are so feeble as a political party, it is difficult for voters to see possible alternatives to current policy. Statewide and local Democratic candidates are woefully underfunded because potential donors assume they will lose. That means these candidates can't tell voters what they would do differently, and in many cases better, than the current administration or Legislature.
Too often, news media coverage of the Legislature offers only token notice of Democrats because their alternative positions on major legislation too often go unnoticed by voters.
Republican voters: If you want a token role in government, then continue to vote only for a token Democrat. Of course, realize that means no choice at election time, no government watchdog to protect your interests against a powerful and arrogant majority, and no policy alternatives to choose from.
But if you want candidates once again to pay attention to you at election time, to have an additional check on government, and to be given choices regarding public policy, consider all the Democrats on the ballot and not just the token. Look at each individual candidate. Think about the value of putting both parties in a position to check each other in elections and governing. That will put you back in the driver's seat in deciding the future direction of the state.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and former chair of the Utah County Democratic Party. The views he expresses are his own and not necessarily those of the university or its sponsoring church.