SALT LAKE CITY — Election Day 2010 proved to be the perfect storm for Utah Republicans.
Spurred by efficient get-out-the-vote efforts, united by voter discontent and emboldened by the national popularity of the tea party movement, motivated Republicans descended in droves Tuesday on polling places throughout the Beehive State.
That trend fueled an overall turnout that may have been the highest for a Utah midterm election since 1994. Veteran pollster Dan Jones estimated that 55 percent of Utah voters went to the polls, well above the 45 percent who voted in the 2006 midterm election.
J. Quin Monson, a BYU political science professor and associate director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, reported the results of exit polling that identified 62 percent of Utah voters as Republicans, 27 percent as Democrats and 11 percent independents — a tangible rise in the relative number of Republicans and a decrease in Democrats from recent elections.
"It's a Republican year," Monson said. "We saw higher proportions of Republicans in the exit polling than we've seen in recent years, which is a reflection of the increased enthusiasm that Republicans have this year about voting."
Jones cited the Republican Party's ability to get its rank-and-file party members to the polls on Election Day as an underlying cause of the GOP success.
"It was a Republican turnout," Jones said. "Over the weekend, the Republican Party getting out the vote was really, really well done. I believe many Democrats stayed home. I don't think the number of independents turned out to be what many people seemed to project."
Monson cites displeasure with President Barack Obama as a common-theme catalyst for Republicans in Utah.
"I think it's easier to get excited when you have an opposition you can unite against," he said. "And I think the Obama presidency provides something Republicans can focus on and unite against."
Although Jones attributes much of Tuesday's Republican activity to tea party momentum, he also warns that tea party support is a two-edged sword because it comes with strings attached.
"I think it's the tea party that really pushed the Republicans like Mr. (Jason) Chaffetz and Mr. (Rob) Bishop to such high majorities. But what happens to them now? … Whether they who get elected can satisfy the members of the tea party, we'll have to wait and see."
Overall voter turnout was brisk. Elections officials along the Wasatch Front reported steady-to-heavy activity at the polls throughout the day. Additional absentee and provisional ballots have yet to be counted.
Utah voter participation was down from nearly 68 percent in the 2008 presidential election, but this year's midterm election got a boost from the special election to select a governor to fill the rest of Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term and a handful of other high-profile races, not to mention the year's unusual political activism.
"Turnout has been really good," said Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. Workers from her office said voting patterns by 10:30 a.m. showed voting in the county on track to reach 55 percent. "We really got slammed after 5 o'clock," she said, leading to dinnertime projections of a 60 percent turnout.
Nice weather likely helped bring more people to the polls, Swensen said.
A programming problem plagued all 110 Utah County polling locations from the moment polls opened at 7 a.m.
"It was the cards," said assistant poll manager Annie Erickson. "As soon as someone put in a card, it wouldn't bring up the election, it would reject the card. Immediately we knew it was the machines."
Poll workers followed their training and allowed for some paper ballots, while the backup plan was implemented.
"We had a problem with the security card that is run through the encoders," Utah County Clerk/Auditor Bryan E. Thompson said. "It appears to be a programming glitch. The poll managers instituted plan 'B,' which was to go ahead and utilize one of the machines as an encoder."
Despite the long lines and waits that stretched up to an hour, most voters took the delay to cast their ballot in stride.
"It took me about 45 minutes, but it's a privilege to be able to vote, even though it took me awhile," Margaret Sykes said.
"There's people in other countries that are still waiting for it," said Steevun Lemon. "Forty-five minutes isn't a long time to cast a vote, at least I don't think so."
Some voters did become discouraged, quietly leaving the line to get to work or to pick up children from school. Some of those who returned to vote later contributed to longer lines late in the day.
Voters making last-minute decisions brought the state's elections website to its knees around 8 p.m. Monday. "We were seeing 200,000 hits to the server per second," said state elections director Mark Thomas. The site had the hardware to support that traffic, but a programming bottleneck caused the site to fail under the heavy traffic load.
"We made some changes, but it went down again about 1 or 2 o'clock," Thomas said. "We worked on it throughout the night, then about 5:30 (a.m. Tuesday) we got it up, got all the errors out, and it's been running ever since."
Several weeks will pass before all Utah counties have a final canvas that includes provisional ballots and absentee ballots.1 comment on this story
The state and several county elections officials said they have seen requests for absentee ballots double since the national election two years ago. Preliminary numbers from the state showed the highest percentage of absentee ballots were cast in Utah's smallest counties.
Salt Lake County expected absentee ballots to account for a little more than 6 percent of the total, where tiny Daggett County had more than 15 percent of its registered voters requesting absentee ballots.