An op-ed by Shawn Teigen: Do politicians listen to voters?

May 15, 2024 (Deseret News)

Before the pandemic in February 2020, I was perplexed when “politicians listening to voters” was at the top of Utahns’ concerns in the Utah Priorities Project. The project seeks to uncover the issues that we think the state should do something about. After my initial confusion, that high ranking made a bit more sense. After all, in 2018, Utahns voted to approve three ballot initiatives:

  • Legalize medical marijuana.
  • Expand Medicaid under Obamacare — or the Affordable Care Act.
  • Create an independent redistricting commission.

Shortly after the vote, the Utah Legislature repealed and replaced the first two and changed the commission to an advisory committee for the third. They then complicated the process of getting an initiative on the ballot and delayed the implementation of successfully passed initiatives. So maybe that made voters angry? Perhaps, though none of the initiatives passed by more than 54% of the vote.

That said, also back in January 2020, a tax reform bill that included a sales tax hike on food met with fierce public opposition. Maybe that made voters angry? However, in that instance, the politicians really did listen to the public and overturned their legislation. Nonetheless, the optics were not ideal. Given the lack of another rational explanation for those Utah Priorities Project results in 2020, I stuck with the argument about voter initiatives and sales taxes.

But then why is “politicians listening to voters” a big issue for this year’s Utah Priorities Project?

While “politicians listening to voters” was not in the No. 1 spot, it was second only to “housing affordability.” That housing topped the list is perhaps a no-brainer. After all, rents have skyrocketed. In addition, home prices since 2021 have gone crazy and — to add insult to injury — mortgage interest rates are relatively high. As a result, the prospects are slim for non-homeowners to transition to being first-time homebuyers. While most Utahns own homes, many of them are concerned about the non-homeowner group, particularly when it comes to the prospects of their own children and grandchildren buying houses in the future.

Again, what is the explanation for “politicians listening to voters” still ranking high on Utahns’ minds this year?

I do not have a specific event to point to this time around. The 2024 Utah Legislature’s general session just ended, which included some hot-button issues such as transgender and diversity bills. However, these types of hot-button issues almost always come before the Utah Legislature. For instance, in 2023, we saw school vouchers and a ban on gender-affirming health care.

Most of the bills that the Utah Legislature passes receive very little attention, so we can assume that they are good for most voters, or at least benign. Further, many Utahns support the recent hot-button issues brought before the Utah Legislature.

Accordingly, not everyone is equally concerned about “politicians listening to voters.” Given that the Utah Legislature is about 80% Republican, one would expect that Republicans – who make up about half of Utah’s registered voters – would be less concerned about politicians listening to them. Indeed, they are less concerned than Democrats and Independents. In fact, “politicians listening to voters” is the top issue for Democrats and Independents. Nonetheless, it is the fourth most important issue for Republicans.

How do Utah voters compare to voters in other states? I have no idea, though it is clear that most Americans do not have much trust in the government. This low level of trust might lead to a concern that politicians do not listen to voters… or existing concerns might lead to a low level of trust.

What can we do about this? The Partnership for Public Service suggests four key solutions:

  • Building government’s capacity to better communicate with, deliver for, and engage with the public.
  • Setting a high standard for trustworthy, accountable and transparent government.
  • Elevating the narrative regarding government and public servants.
  • Cultivating champions across each sector to break the cycle of negativity and expose misinformation about government.

Maybe these would work in Utah.

If I were a politician – which will never happen – this lack of trust would keep me up at night. Unless I found a solution, I would be just as perplexed as I am about “politicians listening to voters” ranking so high on the Utah Priorities Project list of what matters most.

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