’80s event tilted Grand’s balance of power

Kevin Walker

Did the 1993 change in Grand County’s form of government give one political side an advantage over another?

According to Kevin Walker, the answer is no. In fact, the change in political influence took place prior to the change in government, according to his analysis.

While it might be easy to question Walker’s motives – he is, after all, in a leadership position with the Grand County Democratic Party – it was in his role as a research mathematician that Walker presented his findings to the Grand County Change of Form of Government Study Committee on June 14.

For background, Republicans in Grand County believed the change to a nonpartisan seven-person council 26 years ago gave the county’s Democrats an electoral edge, despite there being hundreds more registered Republicans than Democrats in 2018-2019, and when there are more voters who are unaffiliated than either party has in its ranks.

The current form of government is one that voters have consistently endorsed in three subsequent elections. Republicans believed going from a three-person commission erased a quarter century of county commissions that were often comprised of two Republicans and one Democrat, with Democrats taking the majority vote about every six years and staying in power, on average, a single two-year election cycle, according to Walker.

When the nonpartisan seven-person council ended up with a liberal majority, the local GOP so strongly believed they had essentially been disenfranchised that after a quarter century they successfully lobbied to have the current form of government ruled to be out of compliance with Utah statutes.

House Bill 224 pertains to every county in the state, but in reality only Grand and Morgan counties have been affected. Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill into law in March of 2018. The local Republican Party ultimately failed to control the process in how that form of government would be established, something it was willing to litigate in court to resolve.

Judge Don Torgerson ultimately ruled on behalf of Grand County. State lawmakers appointed seven people to the study committee, which has shown to have a membership that fairly represents the county’s political demographics. But the devil might be found later, in the details.

Recent discussions illustrate sharp divisions over whether to establish voting districts or to have candidates run at-large – or a combination of both, for example.

‘Something dramatic happened’

Walker compiled a number of charts and graphs to support his study, which looked at voting trends in the county from 1960 to the most recent election. The tide shifted, according to Walker, between 1984 and 1988. Walker did not assign a cause, saying only there was a “big event” in that timeframe.

But study committee members noted that was during a bust cycle for uranium mining, and many politically conservative people left Moab amid the downturn. There was a glut of homes available and the economy faltered.

Looking at the past 45 years since 1974, Walker said, “control has gone back and forth many times, both before and after 1993.” He said the downward trend for Republican victories has been gradual, aided by another undefined event that he said occurred in 2014.

While Walker concluded there was no discernible advantage for either party following 1993, he also noted other interesting trends.

The volatile up-and-down election cycles became less so starting in 1990, both nationally and in Grand County, said Walker, adding that Grand County has gradually leaned more “liberal/progressive’ over the past three decades, and that trend is even “more extreme” at the City of Moab due to recent changes in community demographics, and the fact, perhaps, that elections are held at-large.

Study Committee member Walt Dabney noted that at-large elections might favor progressives, while electoral districts would create more diversity among elected representatives.

Walker said the issues that have turned the area more progressive have less to do with politics and more to do with geography. He also noted that Grand County has been a bellwether for presidential elections, voting for the winner in each of the past several elections.

‘Dragging people into public service’

Cricket Green is one of the committee’s conservative members. While Walker’s analysis seemed to favor districts for Republicans, Green is staunchly opposed, as she reiterated during a separate discussion regarding this question: Should the new form of government hold at-large elections or should they be held by district? “We need people who want the job,” Green said in favoring at-large voting. “So many times people are unopposed.”

But committee member Bob Greenberg countered thus: “In this country we have a great tradition of dragging people into public service,” said Greenberg, who, like Walker, holds a leadership position in the local Democratic Party.

They might not agree on whether to go at-large or with districts, but every committee member seems to agree the current electoral districts in Grand County are severely out of kilter, with some having two times as many voters as others. If the committee agrees to districts, they will likely retain the services of someone with expertise in drawing electoral maps.

The study committee next meets at noon July 19.