League of Women Voters troubled by candidates' lack of response to surveys 

Nonpartisan organization says silence speaks to troubling apathy

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Utah has a strong history of voter turnout—well, it did in the 1970s. But recent voter turnout is historic only for how abysmal it is. Even in the 2012 election, when Utah's chosen son Mitt Romney graced the ballots, only 57 percent of eligible voters made it to the polls.

Voter apathy is a major concern for Jenn Gonnelly, co-president of the Utah League of Women Voters, but for her, it's not quite as troubling as the apathy her organization sees coming from candidates for elected office who can't be bothered to fill out a simple three-question survey on current events and issues to be included in the league's free voting guide. Gonnelly feels especially frustrated given that the 94-year-old organization is well-known as a neutral and nonpartisan resource for Utahns, one that has never espoused any specific agenda other than helping educate voters.

"We have never supported or opposed any particular candidate," Gonnelly says. "Our entire mission is making sure people have the information they need to make an educated choice."

But that's tough, she says, when candidates don't do their part to fill out a simple survey about three key issues on the minds of Utah voters—air quality, education and health care, in the case of legislative candidates. Out of the 209 candidates the LWV contacted for its 2014 voter's guide, only 81 responded, or 38.76 percent. Gonnelly says this candidate apathy has been gradually getting worse; 96 out of 222 candidates responded for the 2012 guide, for a 43.24 response rate.

The national league's history dates all the way back to the implementation of women's suffrage in Utah. The league keeps its name to recognize its legacy, but is open to all U.S. citizens regardless of gender. And while the organization may advocate for issues like poll-place monitoring and against laws restricting voter access, it remains nonpartisan.

All the more reason why, Gonnelly says, the organization has been frustrated by would-be public servants' refusal to help engage with voters by explaining their positions on key issues.

For the 2014 guide, Gonnelly says, the organization sent the survey to candidates ranging from Congress and the Legislature to school boards, using the contact information the candidates included in their filing paperwork. The surveys were sent a month in advance of the LWV's deadline, and the league followed up multiple times with candidates who hadn't responded.

The highest response per party came from Democrats, with 47 out of 80 candidates—58.75 percent—responding. Far fewer Republicans responded—only 21 out of 92, or 22.83 percent. Out of the 10 candidates running unopposed in their elections, only incumbent Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, returned a survey.

Matt Lyon, the executive director of the Utah State Democratic Party, says there could be a lot of reasons for the low turnout, including how busy the candidates are or how engaged they are in their campaign. "Candidates get a million of these surveys," Lyon says. "Some they respond to, some they don't."

The league offers one of the few nonpartisan surveys, but Lyon points out that the state does create an informational pamphlet for voters, for which the state coordinates with party leaders when they have trouble getting responses.

Julian Babbitt, the executive director of the Utah Republican Party, likewise wishes the league would send surveys to party leadership. Although the party initially advised candidates against taking part in debates hosted by the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah before changing that position, Babbitt says the party has made no recommendations one way or another regarding the LWV's survey.

Matthew Burbank, a political-science professor at the University of Utah, says candidates may be wary of surveys because of how certain special-interest groups use surveys to try to corner candidates on specific polarizing issues like guns or taxes. These groups, unlike the League, Burbank says, are "not trying to inform voters broadly. What they're trying to do is identify candidates that agree with them or label them as completely unworthy of voting for."

For Gonnelly, no matter the reason, the end result is that an independent resource like the Leage of Women Voters is hobbled in its mission to introduce candidates to their constituents.

"If you don't engage with your voters, then why should voters go to the polls for you?" Gonnelly says.

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