The other day I took a look at the Sierra Club’s annual review of Utah state legislators’ votes on issues of environmental concern. The club grades legislators from A to F and gives them “number grades” as well based on the extent to which they backed or opposed bills the club favors. Of course, we can quibble over the club’s choice of bills and the positions it takes; still, their grades offer at least a rough picture of how our representatives vote on issues such as protection of public lands, energy and air quality. The news for those of us in the environmental community is discouraging. Carl Albrecht, whose district includes parts of Grand County, received the third-lowest grade of all 75 state representatives (18.05 percent), a solid “F”; David Hinkins, whose state senate district sprawls across all of Grand County and several others, had the second-lowest grade among all 29 senators (30 percent, also worth an “F”). Finally, Christine Watkins, who represents the rest of Grand County, did better than the other two, but still got an “F” at 41.18 percent. I checked last year’s report card and found that all three had received “Fs” that year as well.
These three legislators claim to represent us, but do they really? They seem to believe that the majorities that elected them generally oppose pro-environment positions. Maybe they are right. Still, there is an older idea of representation that differs from pure majoritarianism: according to it, a legislator should try to take into account all of his/her constituents’ opinions and interests, seeking to understand and give serious consideration not only to the majority view, but also to minority opinions, especially if the minority in his or her district is numerous. But our legislators seem unwilling to adopt that more expansive vision of representation. Instead, their votes in the legislature mirror the broader polarization of the American electorate: the party that wins makes no effort to seek out and accommodate the views of those on the losing side; instead, it acts as if the only opinions worth considering were those of its own “base,” whether solidly Republican or Democratic.
I suggest that our politics would be more civil and balanced if our state legislators tried to find a middle ground on the kinds of issues the Sierra Club’s grading system tracks. I would never expect them to get an “A” grade for their votes, but I do think our representatives could at least poll us on matters such as energy, public lands and air quality, discover what we think, and try—at least occasionally — to heed the positions of their environmentally-minded constituents here in Grand County. That way, they would have a stronger claim to represent all their constituents and not just the ones who already agree with them. And one more thing: why is Grand County split between two legislative districts? If the entire county were allocated to district 69 or 70, then our population of slightly over 10,000 would constitute almost 22 percent of the district to which it was assigned, and our representatives would be far more likely to pay attention to our wishes — just a thought! Let’s keep it in mind when, in the wake of last year’s successful Proposition 4, an independent commission should take over the state’s redistricting in 2021.