Recently, a letter was read over the pulpit in Latter-day Saint congregations; a letter from the First Presidency of the church encouraging church members to participate politically. There have been many such letters before, but what caught the ear of many members and other observers was this sentence: "Merely voting a straight ticket or voting based on "tradition" without careful study of candidates and their positions on important issues is a threat to democracy and inconsistent with revealed standards."1 Dutifully voting straight GOP every election now makes you a bad Latter-day Saint? And is a threat to democracy?
In an otherwise bland letter, this is a bold claim. Let's examine it a little more closely. The only justification given in the letter comes from a single verse in the Doctrine and Covenants (a book of instructions that Latter-day Saints consider scripture) in 98:10, which admonishes members to diligently seek for honest and wise men to uphold. That verse is at least clear: voting a straight ticket "without careful study of the candidates" is obviously the antithesis of the diligent seeking mentioned in that verse.
First question down. But what about thoughtless straight ticket voting being a threat to democracy? There is no scriptural evidence for this given in the letter, nor any other justification, and so we have to speculate on why they might believe this to be the case. The most likely answer is that voting can serve as an accountability mechanism. When elected officials are corrupt or violate norms of democracy, they can be punished by the voters in the next election. Of course, if one always votes straight ticket, that punishment fails to happen. That, in turn, emboldens corrupt or authoritarian-leaning elected officials to double-down on such behaviour, which could ultimately lead to a severe downgrading (if not outright loss) of liberal democracy.
Both questions then seem to have fairly clear answers. But another question also exists, one even more speculative and fraught: why did the First Presidency choose to highlight the evils of dutiful straight ticket voting now? Furthermore, they stressed in that same letter that Gospel principles can be found in multiple political parties, and that members should vote for candidates who "have demonstrated integrity, compassion, and service to others." For Latter-day Saint Never-Trumpers, with a bit of eye-squinting, this almost looks like instruction to not vote Trump in the next election without saying it outright.
A stretch? Perhaps, but consider the case. American Latter-day Saints are notorious straight-ticket voters for the GOP. Instructions to avoid voting straight-ticket would really only hurt GOP candidates among Latter-day Saint ballots. Also, consider that the "threat to democracy" mentioned in the letter is most acutely found in the figure of President Trump; a president known for violating traditional Democratic norms, most especially in the days leading to January 6th, 2021. He is also a president not exactly known for "integrity" or "compassion", but rather a president who prides himself on his ruthlessness and his smarts in exploiting "the system."
Perhaps I'm reading too much into this letter, but the First Presidency are certainly right to worry about straight ticket voting, especially from the standpoint of accountability for violating democratic norms. In 2020, two Yale Political Scientists (Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik) published some troubling results from an experiment they ran on voter/candidate accountability. In the experiment, respondents voted for hypothetical candidates who were also guilty of democratic norm violations. The key variable of interest was partisanship—that of the candidates and the respondents. Strikingly, candidates who adopt undemocratic positions in the experiment only lost about 4% of their vote share among strong partisans (i.e. strong Democrats and Republicans). Furthermore, only 13% of partisans were willing to defect from a democracy-violating candidate from their party to a democracy-promoting candidate from the other party. Their conclusion: "Most voters are partisans first and democrats only second" (p.393).
I, for one, hope that Latter-day Saints follow the advice given in the First Presidency letter. Latter-day Saint doctrine holds the U.S. constitution to be an inspired document, which suggests that punishing undemocratic behaviour among elected officials needs to be a priority among members. It should trump partisan loyalty and even policy preference, which is advice Latter-day Saint leaders have given before. Clearly, consistent straight-ticket voting will run afoul of that priority. Useful advice to consider always, but more particularly given that President Trump will likely win the GOP nomination for the next Presidential election.