Mother Jones|January/February 2021
Can Utah—of all places—show voters how to seize power from conservative supermajorities?

AT FOUR O’CLOCK on a Thursday afternoon, the lobby of Dragonfly Wellness is almost completely full. Clients perch expectantly on the sofas, waiting to be buzzed through the locked door marked patients only. This might not be an unusual scene elsewhere—medical marijuana is legal in more than 30 states—but this happens to be Salt Lake City, within blocks of both the Utah State Capitol and the main temple of the Mormon Church, which proscribes consuming virtually any substance more potent than Diet Coke.

Utah might be the last place you would expect to find any kind of cannabis, but in 2018 Utah voters approved Proposition 2, a ballot measure legalizing medical marijuana, despite huge opposition from the Mormon Church and the conservative state legislature. Two years later, it’s clear that Prop 2 has had a much wider effect than merely legalizing medical weed; it’s begun to shake up one of the most entrenched and tone-deaf GOP legislative supermajorities in Red America.

Consider this: Utah voters not only approved medical marijuana in 2018, but they also passed ballot measures calling for Medicaid expansion and independent redistricting, two major progressive priorities. This in a state where Republican candidates routinely clobber Democrats by 30 percentage points or more in statewide races. Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) and the Republican establishment fought all three measures—Proposition 2 in particular—many good Republicans and Mormons clearly voted for all three of these “liberal” laws, in defiance of church and party.

“We have districts where Republicans won by a large majority, but the ballot initiatives passed,” says Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a former state representative who helped implement Proposition 4, which established an independent redistricting commission. “These were specific initiatives on issues that [the legislature] had voted against, year after year after year. So you have Republicans who feel like their representatives are not aligned with them on these issues.”

That’s a nice way of saying that Utah is in the middle of a voter rebellion, driven by a growing gulf between what people actually want (marijuana, Medicaid, and fair districts) and what their conservative, religious elected representatives have been willing to give them.

It happened again in December 2019, after the state legislature passed a sweeping tax reform package it had spent several months crafting. The main thrust of the “reform” was to cut the state income tax rate while increasing the state sales tax on groceries, and imposing new sales taxes on certain everyday services, such as dog grooming. This was so transparently rigged to benefit the rich at the expense of everyone else that even Utah’s generally Republican voters rebelled. Within weeks, organizers on both the left and the right had gathered more than enough signatures to compel a ballot measure repealing the tax “reform.” The legislature folded immediately and repealed the bill it had just passed.

“It was an incredible exercise of the people’s power,” says Chavez-Houck, a Democrat. And to many, it was a harbinger of change to come.

EVERYBODY THINKS of Utah as a rock-ribbed red state. After all, although many Mormons view him with distaste, Donald Trump recently carried it by 20 points. But Utah is also a very confused state right now. Thanks to an influx of newcomers from California and the East Coast (like me three years ago), drawn by jobs in the booming local tech industry and the outdoor lifestyle, Utah today is starting to demographically resemble its bluish-to-purple neighbors Arizona, Nevada, and even Colorado. A Gallup poll ranked Salt Lake City among the 10 gayest cities in America. And voters—especially young voters—are less wedded to the doctrines of the Mormon Church than in the past. Yet political power remains tightly gripped by a small group of very right-wing, very religious Republicans who have controlled all three branches of state government for more than three decades—and show no signs of letting go.

Utah isn’t the only place that’s chafing under a conservative legislature. In Pennsylvania, a majority of registered Democrats live under often vindictive GOP legislative rule; most recently, Pennsylvania’s Republicans went to the US Supreme Court to stop these Democrats from mail-in voting. (They lost.) In Texas, the electorate is being pulled to the middle by demographic change, while the legislature remains regressively conservative. But Utah is 78 percent white and overwhelmingly Republican. It is still a place where a woman can face criminal charges for going topless in her own home. Yet it is precisely these white Republicans who are beginning to join Democrats and rebel against their own politicians—in one ballot-measure fight after another. Even Republicans are getting sick of Republican rule. And Utah offers a blueprint for how to liberate your state from one-party rule.

“Again and again in the last few years, we’ve seen the public rise up against the legislature,” says Rep. Joel Briscoe, a veteran statehouse Democrat from Salt Lake City.

The governing class is not pleased about having to answer to voters’ wrath. In his opening remarks at this past January’s 45-day legislative session, House Speaker Brad Wilson blasted the ballot propositions as “divisive” and “ruinous,” accusing voters who supported them of having “turned away from the basic principles of a democratic republic.”

But that charge is more accurately leveled against the legislature itself, where Republicans exert supermajority control. “Everything is decided in closed Republican caucuses and closed back rooms, with the governor and the legislature,” says former Democratic state Sen. Jim Dabakis. “When that happens generationally, and there’s no checks and no balance and nobody is allowed to delve into the details of government, you get a very arrogant, very entitled, very out-of-touch group governing.”

“You really do have a dictatorship of the legislature in this state,” says political consultant Reed Galen, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project who helped support the redistricting initiative. The ballot measures raise a simple question: How much longer can this go on?

Key to understanding Utah’s confusion is that its legislature is more religious and hardline than the state itself, and the gulf continues to widen. For starters, about 60 percent of Utah’s population is nominally Mormon—a figure that has been steadily declining—while more than 90 percent of state legislators are active members of the LDS church (including a handful of Democrats).

The party balance is also out of whack: Democratic candidates typically pull 30 to 40 percent of the vote statewide but hold only 21 percent of legislative seats. The six Senate Democrats could caucus around a lunch table. Twenty-five of the 104 legislators are women—representing an all-time high—but only three are Latino, although Hispanics and Latinos make up 15 percent of the state’s population, and the number is growing.

The typical Utah legislator is thus a wealthy is a white businessman who generally works in real estate, accounting, or insurance (the legislature is part-time), is a diehard social conservative and is devoutly Mormon. “The legislature is a lot more conservative than normal Utahns,” says Lauren Simpson, policy director for the Alliance for a Better Utah, a left-leaning watchdog group.

There are structural reasons that explain why the legislature is so extreme, Simpson says. Because both parties have traditionally chosen candidates in party conventions, GOP candidates must pass muster with far-right activists, such as Gayle Ruzicka, a Phyllis Schlafly disciple who heads the Utah chapter of Eagle Forum, which enforces strict discipline on social issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights. More recent changes to election law—which the state GOP strenuously opposed—allow candidates not chosen in their parties’ conventions to force a primary by gathering signatures, a strategy since employed by outsiders such as (checks notes) Sen. Mitt Romney.

But thanks to artful gerrymandering, voting in a general election has felt almost irrelevant. Liberal, gay-friendly Salt Lake City and its moderate suburbs are split among the four congressional districts. My Salt Lake neighborhood shares Rep. Chris Stewart, a leading Trump toady, with the Sunbelt retirement mecca of St. George, 300 miles to the southwest. Republicans claimed they drew the legislative map to “balance” urban, suburban, and rural voters in each district to reflect the geographic makeup of the state.

“They didn’t really believe that,” says Matthew Burbank, professor of political science at the University of Utah. “All they really wanted to do was dilute the impact of people in Salt Lake City so they wouldn’t have a voice in Congress. That was very purposely done.”

The same thing happens at the statehouse level: Democratic and non-LDS enclaves such as greater Park City and Moab are sliced up like pizzas. The result is a lack of meaningful competition. “People are forced to choose between whatever the Democrats come up with against a Republican who may be substantially more conservative than the district. There are no other options,” says Michael Lyons, a professor of political science at Utah State University. “The real-world consequence is that we have an unrepresentative state government.”

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