Utah voter turnout: A state of apathy

For half a century, turnout has been in decline; why reversing the slide matters

Published: Saturday, Oct. 23 2010 10:00 p.m. MDT

While voter turnout in the U.S. has held relatively steady since 1908, it has fallen through the floor in Utah. In 2008, the state set a record-low 50.5 percent for a presidential election.

Chuck Wing, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. the news wasn't good.

Even though he had just won re-election, Utah's voter turnout had been dismal — 48th out of 50 states. The figures had been trending downward for years. Seeking answers, Huntsman reached out to 20 of the most prominent figures in the state to fix the problem.

The first meeting, held in a side parlor at the Governor's Mansion in February 2009, had a sense of urgency. The chairman of the group, Larry Miller, was confined to a hospital bed but insisted on joining the meeting via conference call; doctors and nurses could be heard working in the background of Miller's call.

For the 20 men and women comprising the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy, the call to action resonated as timely: while voter turnout in the U.S. has held relatively steady since 1908, it has fallen through the floor in Utah during the past 50 years. In 1964, 78.5 percent of eligible voters in Utah cast ballots; by 2008 that number had plummeted to 50.5 percent, a record low for a presidential election.

In a letter written to the commission three months after its inception, Huntsman laid out the problem (citizens weren't voting) and the stakes (an engaged electorate is essential to democracy). He encouraged the group to figure out the roots of voter apathy and tasked his commissioners with looking at five specific areas that may have been contributing to the problem: ethics laws, campaign finance rules, redistricting procedures, lobbying regulations, and the way elections were carried out. He hoped that in doing so the commission could help improve Utah's participation in elections and overall civic engagement, two measurements of healthy and vibrant democracies.

Nearly two years after the Governor's Commission first convened and 10 months following its final recommendations, it remains unclear how successful the group fared in reaching its goals. State elections director Mark Thomas predicts voter turnout in 2010 will be 70-75 percent of registered voters (equivalent to approximately 54 percent of eligible voters), a modest increase over 2008, but far from a sufficiently strong figure to decisively quell the Beehive State's decades-in-the-making steady decline in voter turnout.

Although straightforward, the stakes for whether Utah's malaise of voter apathy can be righted are clear — either fix the problem, or cede the power to select elected officials to a small group of special interest groups, political activists and corporate entities.

"I believe (voting) is an absolute imperative responsibility of a democracy," said Frank Pignanelli, a former state legislator who served on the Governor's Commission. "Those who choose not to vote on a regular basis in my mind are committing a grave crime against our democracy, our country and our state.

"You have to participate in order to make sure that there's accountability by our elected officials, and also that the will of our population is expressed."

The 2008 presidential election simultaneously marked America's third-highest voter turnout of the last century and the Beehive State's all-time low for a presidential election during the same time period.

"What's interesting about Utah is that it's one of these states where the overall trend (for voter turnout) is actually going down despite the national trend going upward," said Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University and Brookings Institute fellow who runs the public-interest United States Election Project.

Although explanations for the downward creep of Utah's voter turnout vary somewhat from one scholar to the next, many experts tend to agree that Utahns aren't voting simply because they consider the election results to be a foregone conclusion.

Translation: Republicans always win Utah's statewide elections.

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