Pretty much nobody likes the Zion Curtain

Democrats (81%), Republicans (51%), Mormons (51%), other religious adherents (87%), and the non-religious (99%) all agree that restaurants should be allowed to remove these barriers.

Utah law requires restaurants to prepare alcoholic drinks out of sight of customers, either in a separate room or behind a 7-foot tall visual barrier.1 The barrier is routinely derided as the “Zion curtain.” Utah legislators considered a proposal to eliminate this requirement in last year’s legislative session, but the proposal faltered. Because legislators will almost certainly consider the matter again this winter, I included several questions about it in the November 2014 Utah Voter Poll.

The punchline: Democrats (81%), Republicans (51%), Mormons (51%), other religious adherents (87%), and the non-religious (99%) all agree that restaurants should be allowed to remove these barriers. Overall, 63% of Utahns support removal, while only 17% oppose it. (There is a squishy middle of 20% that takes no side.)

This finding of 63% overall support for removal almost exactly mirrors the 62% reported a month ago in a Dan Jones poll commissioned by UtahPolicy (see writeup 1 and writeup 2). To have such agreement across polls that used different question wording and different sampling methods is remarkable.

But the real fun comes in the details, so keep reading. We didn’t just ask about support for removing the barriers; we also asked some additional questions that reveal some surprises about voter attitudes.

The context: The November 2014 Utah Voter Poll

I included several questions about Utah’s alcohol barriers in the post-election wave of the Utah Voter Poll. Respondents are voters recruited into the panel through traditional random sampling techniques during past waves of the Utah Colleges Exit Poll. Details about the poll methodology are available in the November 2014 topline report. The poll is administered by BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. The questions reported here were only one small part of the November poll. For complete question wording, view the topline report.

Utahns don’t believe the barriers make a difference

After providing a brief explanation of current law regarding these barriers (available in the topline), I began by asking respondents whether they agree or disagree with the common justifications given for these barriers. Using a five-point scale (strongly agree, somewhat agree, neither agree nor disagree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree), respondents indicated their agreement with each of the following four statements:

  • Erecting these barriers has decreased alcohol consumption.
  • Removing these barriers would increase alcohol consumption.
  • Erecting these barriers has helped parents teach their children to make wise choices about alcohol.
  • Removing these barriers would help parents teach their children to make wise choices about alcohol.

Respondents overwhelmingly rejected the first three statements, though they show some ambivalence about the fourth; a substantial minority of Utahns believe that removing the barriers would help them teach their children about alcohol.

First I’ll give overall results. To keep the table readable, I abbreviate question wording here, and I combine “strongly agree” with “somewhat agree” into a single “agree” category (likewise for “disagree”). The neutral category, not reported here, hovers in the 20-30% range.

Agree % Disagree %
Barriers decrease drinking 9 69
Removal would increase drinking 15 67
Barriers help parents teach 11 68
Removal would help parents teach 31 35

The next table reports results by partisan and religious subgroups. In the interest of space, I report only the percentage who agree (either “strongly” or “somewhat”) in this table. All these subgroups join in rejecting the first three statements. On the fourth, Republicans and Mormons are less likely than others to believe that removing the barriers would help them teach their children about alcohol. Regardless, Republicans and Mormons join the other groups in believing that the barriers haven’t helped them teach their children in the past.

Dem GOP LDS Other religion No religion
Barriers decrease drinking 8 10 10 12 3
Removal would increase drinking 11 17 17 14 4
Barriers help parents teach 9 11 13 8 1
Removal would help parents teach 41 24 27 41 42

Utahns prefer to eliminate the barriers

I next asked respondents to evaluate the following three policy alternatives using the same five-point scale as before, except agree/disagree became support/oppose:

  • Allow restaurants to remove these barriers and prepare alcohol within sight of customers.
  • Allow restaurants to remove these barriers if they post a sign at the door advising patrons that alcohol is prepared within sight of customers.
  • Change nothing; continue to require these barriers.

The first two proposals have been the subject of actual bills in recent legislative sessions. Overall, Utah voters prefer simply eliminating the barriers, though they prefer either reform to the status quo. Once again, 20-30% of respondents are neutral on each proposal.

Support % Oppose %
Allow removal of barriers 63 17
Allow removal with notices 43 25
Change nothing; keep barriers 16 64

All partisan and religious subgroups support allowing restaurants to remove the barriers. Among Democrats, the non-religious, and non-Mormon religious adherents, support is extremely strong (above 80%) for removing the barriers. Though only 51% of Republicans and 51% of Mormons support removing the barriers, only 24% of Republicans and 23% of Mormons oppose this change; the rest are neutral. Even among Republicans and Mormons, then, there is a 2-1 margin in favor of eliminating the barriers.

Dem GOP LDS Other religion No religion
Allow removal of barriers 81 51 51 87 99
Allow removal with notices 43 43 44 37 44
Change nothing; keep barriers 8 20 20 7 1

Incidentally, the survey also included a little experiment. Half the survey respondents saw these barriers referred to as the “Zion curtain”; the rest did not see that term. The questions were otherwise identical. Polling research often finds that including this sort of critical language can influence the results, especially when respondents’ opinions are weakly formed. In this case, though, it turns out that including the critical term “Zion curtain” had no effect on the results. Those who saw the critical epithet provided similar answers to the questions as those who did not. The resilience of these results to this wording shift suggests that voters attitudes on this issue are relatively well-formed.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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