SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Kraig Powell says Utah is getting a bad rap as one of the states with the lowest voter turnout in the nation, and he wants to do something about it.
His answer is HB253, which requires counties to follow a process to remove voters from registration rolls who consistently fail to vote in general elections.
"Utah has the lowest voter turnout in the country right now," the Republican from Heber said.
But the reason is that national rankings divide those who have voted by total registered voters, and Utah's rolls are clogged with the names of people who no longer live at their registered addresses, Powell said, perhaps because they have moved or even died.
That leads to Utah's poor showing in national voter turnout rankings, he said, rather than lack of voter participation.
The proposal generated intense debate on its way to a 6-4 vote of the House Political Subdivision Committee that moves the measure on to the House floor.
According to the bill, voters who fail to vote in two consecutive elections would be sent a notice to inquire if their address is still correct. If voters fail to respond to that notice and also fail to vote in two additional general elections, their names would then be removed from the voter rolls.
Such voters would not be eligible to vote in the general election of the 10th consecutive year, according to the proposal.
Marina Lowe, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union, and John Pace, a Salt Lake City attorney, each told the committee that they believe the bill violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which prohibits voters being struck from roles for failing to vote.
"Voting is a right not a privilege," Lowe said. "The right to vote includes the right not to vote."
Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Salt Lake, said she's concerned about the elderly and others who with "stacks of mail" might easily miss the notification.
Rep. James Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, argued it wouldn't be too difficult to check one's voter registration status either online or by calling the county clerk's office in advance of an election, if a person had not voted in awhile.
Arie Van de Graaff of the Utah Association of Counties, who maintain voter registration records said his organization is still reviewing the proposal, including whether or not it complies with federal law.
Powell said the bill's purpose is not to weed out voters who rarely vote, but to correct voters' addresses. It's language was reviewed by the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel and determined not to violate federal law, he said.
Dunnigan said the proposal is reasonable. "If you don't respond to a notice, and if don't vote in eight years, you should come off (voter rolls). You should come off. All you have to do is vote every eight years or not ignore a notice.
"We have to have some responsibility if you are going to vote," Dunnigan added.
Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, agreed. "Freedom isn't free," he said as he made a motion for the bill's approval. "There are responsibilities that come with the right to vote."
Powell said that he is in no way trying to depress voter turnout, Powell said.
"I want to say very clearly … nothing could be further from my intention."
Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, said she supported the bill, but suggested that it might be amended to include email notification or a provision for voters inadvertently purged from the rolls to vote anyway.