Tom Smart, Deseret News
Last week the Corporation for National and Community Service issued its first annual study of Civic Life in America. The report is chock full of mostly good news about our community. Utah ranked first nationwide in the rate of voluntarism and first nationwide in how often we help our neighbors. Among major metropolitan areas, Salt Lake City ranked No. 1 in "working with neighbors." And more Utah citizens donated funds to charitable and religious organizations than did citizens of any other state.
Indeed, no other state is close to taking Utah's top spots for these issues. While the average national volunteer rate was 26.5 percent, Utah's was 44.2 percent. The next closest state, Iowa, had a volunteer rate of 37.8 percent. While the average national rate for donating funds of $25 or more was 49.9 percent of the population, Utah's rate was 70.9 percent. The next closest state, Connecticut, had a fund donation rate of 62.2 percent. And the statistics show that Utah's voluntarism and giving have increased even during the recession.
But the report also provides one jarring finding about civic life in Utah: our abysmal voter participation. For voting, Utah ranks 43rd in the nation. Nationally, 58.2 percent of those estimated to be of voting age voted in the 2008 elections. In Utah, the figure was 50.7 percent. In order to be counted among the top 10 states, we would have needed a 65.2 percent turnout.
Perhaps Utah can't be tops in every category. But what is so strikingly odd about Utah's low voter participation is that the other measures of voluntarism highlighted in this study are usually tightly correlated with voter turnout. And the study bears this out. Of the top-10 states for voluntarism, six are also top-10 states for voter turnout and the others have above-average turnout — except for Utah.
This study doesn't explore why Utahns aren't voting. But here are some competing hypotheses. Perhaps Utahns are so satisfied with their elected officials that they have not felt the need to express themselves through voting. Alternatively, perhaps Utahns have determined that the current political system doesn't provide genuinely competitive choices and voting is futile. The reasons for not voting may be as different as each non-voter in the state. Whatever the reasons, Utah's low voter turnout is not a healthy indicator for a state with such a big heart.