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A party on the ballot

by Jay Hamburger OF THE RECORD STAFF

On Election Day, Christine Johnson says her partner wanted to make her selections contest by contest, not just choose a straight-party ticket.

But her partner, the freshman Democratic legislator says, instead selected a straight-party ticket for the Personal Choice Party, a fringe party that won an unexpected number of similar straight-party votes on Election Day.

Johnson’s partner realized the error and changed her vote but the representative has introduced a bill to change Utah election law to better designate political parties on the state’s touch-screen voting machines.

Johnson, who is from eastern Salt Lake and represents the Snyderville Basin, wants the state to require that the word ‘party’ be attached at the end of each political party on the straight-party portion of the ballot.

On Election Day 2006, the Personal Choice Party appeared on the ballot as ‘Personal Choice.’ Afterward, there was suspicion that lots of the voters who selected the party as a straight-party choice did so inadvertently. The critics said the voters were probably trying to make individual selections.

"I think it sounds more like a verb, more like an action, than a political affiliation," Johnson says about the appearance of Personal Choice on the straight-party screen on the voting machines.

Representatives and senators have given the bill bipartisan support. Five votes on the bill, in committees, the full House and the full Senate, have been unanimous, with six representatives not voting when it passed the House in January.

The Personal Choice Party’s finish in Summit County in November was an Election Day oddity that few anticipated. In the county, the party won about 30 percent of the straight-party ballots, 1,136 votes. The party trailed the Democrats, which won about 41 percent of the straight-party ballots, but beat the Republicans, with about 28 percent of those votes.

Afterward, Sue Follett, the Summit County clerk at the time, said, "there was confusion with the voters yesterday." Follett said some who voted assumed they were choosing to vote contest by contest by selecting Personal Choice.

The Personal Choice Party had one candidate, Roger Price, who was challenging for the U.S. Senate, on an otherwise packed local ballot. Price acknowledges that Johnson’s bill could lessen confusion but says that the legislation is unnecessary.

He says elections officials could instead conduct a better public-relations campaign to teach people how to use the touch-screen machines, which debuted in Utah in 2006. Price says voters did not read the instructions on Election Day if they accidentally voted Personal Choice on a straight-party ticket.

"That’s another one of those foolish things that doesn’t mean doodly-squat," he says about the bill, arguing that voters should learn about political parties and candidates before going to the polls. "It’s just a waste. What do you need that for?"

Price won 1.63 percent of the overall votes in the Senate contest, won by Orrin Hatch, the popular Republican incumbent.

State election officials report the Personal Choice Party received about 15,000 straight-party votes.

The party touts a platform of individual freedoms as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. "Personal Choice has no official party platform other than personal choice. It is a platform of tolerance. Political candidates choose and champion their own platforms," the party says on its World Wide Web site. The party uses a smiley face as its logo.

Summit County Clerk Kent Jones, the county’s top elections official, says he has not researched the bill. He says the legislation will make voting easier to understand and he says he assumes he will support the bill.

"If it helps clarify it, it’s smart," Jones says. "It’s a simple fix."


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