For Whom the Voucher Polls

There's nothing a politico loves more than a poll backing up his or her position with popular support from the voting public. We're constantly inundated with "the people want this" and "the people want that" in an attend to get us jumping on the bandwagon. It's bad enough when you're John Q. Voter. I can't imagine what a pain it must be for legislators. You see, they're in a special position: they are both representatives of a distinct geographical area and of the state as a whole. Their job is to balance the interests of their constituents with the interests of the state's population to come to some kind of mutually agreeable outcome. It's a hard enough balancing act as it is, but what if the two of them collide?

This is the distinct possibility we face this November with the upcoming referendum on the universal voucher program. What should a legislator do if their district approves vouchers and the state as a whole rejects them? There's little doubt in my mind that the strong opponents and strong proponents will choose the answer best suited to their respective goals. Legislators in such districts will be in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" kind of scenario where no matter what they do, they're going to take heat for it. This will only be further complicated if, in the event of a defeat, post-mortem polls try and break down the "nay" votes by reason. If legislators see enough of them who voted against the specific implementation rather than the concept as a whole, they could re-introduce the legislation in the next general session with those tweaks and again be claiming to be doing what their constituents want.

This swings the other way too. In the event of vouchers being upheld, legislators could choose to take that as a stamp of approval on a plan that most proponents will admit will likely need some tweaks and changes. This wouldn't even factor in the "no" votes that generally support such a program but want to see changes as well. It seems that votes and polls don't actually give us a lot of the clarity we so strongly desire.

With all of the complications, I don't think there's a clear-cut answer on this issue. I'm inclined to say that legislators are primarily responsible for their constituency. What say you?

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10 Responses

  1. I don’t see the lack of clarity. Our constitution provides that the enactment or non-enactment of this law will be decided by a majority of statewide voters. Seems pretty straightforward. There are dozens of volumes of Utah Code provisions that may or may not be favored by particular constituencies; no one professes confusion about whether to follow those laws.

  2. Jesse says:

    The lack of clarity comes when pols start inserting voter intent into the numbers. Yes, it’s an up-or-down on HB148, but not necessarily on a voucher program. Pass or fail, the issue will not be definitively decided in November.

  3. Tim says:

    You define the problem quite well but you left out one important factor, the Governor. Here is one scenario:

    1) voters throw out the voucher law in November.
    2) legislators bring up a slightly different version next year.
    3) the struggle you describe unfolds and the bill passes.
    4) the Governor, representing the whole state (see #1 above) vetoes it.
    5) the legislature is unable to override the veto.

    Everybody does what they feel like they should do and the WILL of the people is served.

  4. Jesse says:

    That’s an excellent point, Tim, and it underscores that legislators cannot be expected to follow the entirety of the state but rather their own constituency. It does seem likely that despite his personal support for vouchers, Gov. Huntsman would be the kind of guy to veto any resuscitation attempts to keep the state as a whole happy. Of course, he could be subject to some of the reinterpretations cited above…

  5. rmwarnick says:

    The polls I have seen indicate vouchers will go down in flames by a 2-1 margin. Legislators ought to read the message as follows: “Not only no, but hell no!”

  6. Bradley Ross says:

    In an important sense, I disagree with both of your options. Legislators aren’t sent to vote as our proxy, either as a local or state collective. We must elect people we trust to become informed and make good decisions.

    Joe Voter is, on average, far less informed about the substance of the voucher debate than Louis Legislator. This is why I generally don’t like referendums. They are frequently a measure of an advertising campaign rather than a debate about the real issue. In short, pure democracy is a really bad form of government on a large scale. Let’s not expect our republic to act like a democracy.

  7. Tim says:

    While Joe Voter may not be as “informed”, his heart is not tainted by special interests and his mind is not consumed by the power that comes with being an elected official. If we are going to allow some of these goofs to make a career out of their positions of power, we must have referendums to keep them in check. Knowing what is right doesn’t always translate into doing what is right.

  8. Jesse says:

    Bradley: While you are correct that a legislator should do what they think is right even if it runs contrary to public opinion, a good legislator is a lot like a good manager. They will solicit feedback to affect their ultimate decision but do not necessarily have to make their decision based exclusively on the feedback. In that sense, it’s important to establish which feedback is most important.

  9. Bradley Ross says:

    Tim, that is a good point. I favor term limits for this reason. However, I infer from your post that you believe special interests are bad thing. I heartily disagree. They care about a particular issue (i.e. special interest), like children’s health or vehicle safety or any number of other important issues, and help educate legislators in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. A healthy government benefits from the pulls of opposing factions.

    Jesse, I like the way you frame this in your response. Ultimately, I think a legislator is supposed to act in the best interest of the whole state, while providing his or her particular voice to the debate that is colored with a local voice.

  10. Bill Fox says:

    all I know is that yesterday I listened to Pro & Con commercials most of the way home. The Con were very deceptive and emotion tugging. The Pro were just plain lame. If someone really wants this to pass the first thing they need to do is fire their add agency

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