Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Utah's political nerds now have reasons to 'geek out'

The Utah political nerd society (we are charter members) is excited about new developments in local elections. We “geek out” on the intriguing questions:

Almost all Salt Lake County municipal elections will be conducted by mail-in ballots this year. How will this impact the mayor's race in Salt Lake City and other contests?

Pignanelli: "Boomers and Xers totally want to unplug from voting as a social activity. They don’t have time for it; they don’t want to participate in some institutional ceremony” — Neal Howe

This campaign season is best described as "Revenge of the Nerds,” because those political operatives who understand and crunch the numbers, mechanics and demographics will prevail.

National studies indicate “all-mail” balloting increases voter participation in local elections, which otherwise have abysmal turnouts. Politicos are conjecturing whether this new dynamic benefits incumbents (with name identification and decent job approval ratings) or challengers (because grumpy citizens can easier express complaints), especially in the battle between Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and his major opponent Jackie Biskupski.

City candidates and apartment dwellers usually ignore each other. But now, the presence of a handy ballot lying around may prompt a newly discovered civic responsibility — and unpredictably alter a close race. Most mayoral and council contenders lack financial resources to track support in various demographic groups, so they have to make the “best guesses” and then utilize retail politics for persuasion. But the wrong gut feeling is riskier with mail ballots.

So there are no real answers — a frustration to candidates and their campaign managers (but great fun for us political weirdos).

Webb: For several years, voter turnout in Utah has been lousy, especially in municipal elections, where a few votes can make a big difference. One suggested solution is to make it easier to vote. Nothing’s easier than marking a ballot and dropping it in the mail. So we will see if voting by mail results in more ballots being cast. It’s worth trying.

The fact that results are less predictable with mail-in voting is actually a good thing. It forces candidates to campaign more broadly, to all registered voters and citizens, instead of just those who have voted in past elections. It’s very easy now to register to vote. And now it’s very easy to vote. That means candidates can’t zero in on select voters as they have in the past. This is good for democracy.

How do mail-in ballots and the likely involvement of the conservative Super PAC Americans for Prosperity affect the local option sales tax proposal that county leaders are considering placing on the ballot?

Pignanelli: Long-established knowledge dictates that tax and bonding initiatives are more likely to succeed in lower turnout elections. But conventional wisdom is in jeopardy. The local option gas tax proposal enjoys only soft support because many residents are grumpy with the Utah Transit Authority (which is a beneficiary along with cities and counties). So the likely increase in voter participation this November, compounded with the well-funded super PAC media blitz, offers unprecedented challenges to the tax supporters. (The dynamics of this is entertaining to the really demented political hacks.)

Webb: The conventional wisdom is that mail-in ballots will increase voter turnout and higher turnout improves the chances of ballot proposals.

I have worked with the Salt Lake Chamber’s Transportation Coalition and I’ve watched as mayors, city council members and county leaders have worked hard to assess and plan their transportation infrastructure needs in the face of dramatic growth.

So I’m personally rather insulted that an out-of-state, unelected, unrepresentative special interest group funded by the Koch brothers would waltz into Utah and tell Utah’s local leaders it knows what’s best for them.

For years, local leaders, close to taxpayers, have asked the Legislature for tools to address their local transportation needs. In the last session, the Legislature gave them the tools. I’m confident they won’t be intimidated by an out-of-state special interest group that knows nothing about local conditions.

A new Utah PAC controlled by billboard magnates Billand Dewey Reagan is spending money supporting Biskupski over Becker in the Salt Lake mayoral race. Does this alter the outcome?

Pignanelli: The intense support of a well-connected wealthy family is a real benefit to the lucky candidate … usually. But our capital metropolis is a different place. Becker built his political career opposing billboards. If the mayor cleverly uses this new election revelation to reaffirm his green urban planning background, and play to the suspicions of city voters towards corporate PACs, he will have transformed an obstacle into an effective weapon.

Webb: Municipalities, in particular Salt Lake City, like to make life miserable for billboard companies. I believe, in some cases, the outdoor advertising firms haven’t been treated fairly.

But I’m not sure siding with one liberal Democrat over another liberal Democrat will help the Reagan operation very much. In reality, this is the Reagan folks flexing some political muscle, sending a message to politicians that if they take on the outdoor advertising industry there will be consequences.