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Utah next to last in voter turnout

S.L. County official blames it on inconvenience in registration

Published: Tuesday, July 21 2009 1:20 a.m. MDT

Despite regular encouragement by local civic and religious leaders, Utah suffered the second-worst voter turnout in the nation in last November's election, according to estimates released Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

It estimated, based on surveys, that only 53.1 percent of U.S. citizens in Utah age 18 or older voted in that presidential election, even though the election also featured a Utah governor's contest, and legislative, county and school board races on the November ballot.

Nationally, 63.6 percent of eligible Americans participated in the election.

"That's so unfortunate," said Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen about Utah's poor showing. "I think that so many Utahns believe the presidential election is a foregone conclusion. And the Legislature has made it more inconvenient to register to vote."

Only Hawaii had lower turnout as only 51.8 percent of its eligible citizens voted. Minnesota had the nation's highest voter turnout at 75 percent.

But Utah's poor showing was still sort of an improvement over the midterm races in 2006, when Utah finished dead last in the nation with only 36.7 percent of citizens voting. (Turnout is always much higher in presidential election years.)

Voting participation dropped slightly nationally between presidential elections in 2004 and 2008, from 63.8 to 63.6 percent — although 5 million more Americans actually voted in 2008 because of population growth.

But in Utah, both percentages and numbers of those voting dropped.

Utah went from a voter turnout of 67.8 percent in 2004 (when then-popular-in-Utah President George W. Bush was re-elected) to 53.1 percent last year.

Of course, minorities, Democrats and many independents certainly were motivated to vote in 2008 — mainly because Barack Obama, the first African-American nominated for president by a major party — was on the ballot.

Comparatively speaking, Utah has few minorities, including African-Americans, and a lower number of Democrats than many other states.

Addressing Swensen's "foregone conclusion" aspect, Utahns have not voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson won here in 1964. And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was well ahead here in the polls by the 2008 Election Day.

A major reason Utah was second-to-last in voter turnout is that it is also second-to-last in how many potential voters are registered.

The Census Bureau estimated that 56.8 percent of U.S. citizens living in Utah were registered to vote. Again, only Hawaii, where 46.8 percent were registered, had lower numbers.

That 56.8 percent in Utah had dropped from an estimated 75.7 percent in 2004 (and a rank of No. 11 among the states then), according to the Census bureau.

"Utah has gone backwards" to making it more convenient to register, said Swensen, a Democrat who has been in her office for 18½ years.

"Just recently the Legislature stopped us from registering voters in our satellite offices. We used to register 15,000 people (to vote) in grocery stores just days before the election," she said.

When she came into her office, you could register up to 20 days before an election. Now it's 30 days.

"I don't feel the path of Utah (election) law has made voting more accessible, as other states have," she added.

e-mail: lee@desnews.com; bbjr@desnews.com

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