What if people were allowed to vote online, but nobody cared?

Tuesday's dismal election turnout in Utah — early estimates put it at 13 percent — has to be juxtaposed against the anger that supposedly is fueling a public revolt against incumbents. Motivated Democrats in Salt Lake County were credited for fueling what county clerk Sherrie Swensen went so far as to call an "amazing" day of voting there. But "amazing" would likely translate to 20 percent, at most.

In the context of some previous Utah primaries, that would be considered amazing, and also disturbing, in and of itself.

So we're left with this: 3,500 state Republican delegates made the choice, for everyone else, that incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett should be removed from the race, and then a handful of GOP-registered voters decided that (with apologies to Democratic underdog candidate Sam Granato) Mike Lee likely will be the state's next U.S. senator.

Government by the people? Election Day is looking more like a late-season game between the New Jersey Nets and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Only a handful of people will actually decide the outcome, and a precious few more even care.

Utah is not alone. Primary election results — tea party rallies not withstanding — have been low nationwide. But Utah is not, as some here fancy it to be, a leader in civic participation.

I've never been much of a fan of the idea that government should make voting as easy as possible so that more people will show up. Voting isn't a chore you should be nagged into doing, like changing your oil every 3,000 miles. Engaged and informed citizens ought to find a way to vote no matter what — within reason.

But it is that "reason" Utah may need to examine a little closer. Because the truth is, despite all the hand-wringing, general election voter turnout hasn't changed that much through the years (although Utah's total was among the lowest rates in 2008). Primary turnout, however, has dropped dramatically.

There are two explanations for this: In 1994 the state switched primary elections from September to June, and the Republican Party in Utah has closed its primaries to all but registered party members.

The last September primary, in 1992, attracted a turnout of nearly 50 percent. Since then, turnout has not been more than 20 percent. Where did the other 30 percent go? A few years ago, a Dan Jones & Associates poll found that if you combine the folks who stay home because they don't want to register with the party and the ones who were doing other things in the nice June weather, such as traveling on vacation, you can account for 40 percent of the people who don't vote.

In my district last Tuesday, you had to be a Republican to cast a ballot. There were no races involving Democrats. And for some of the races, the winner of the primary was virtually assured of being the ultimate winner in November.

Yes, informed citizens should find a way to vote no matter the time of year. People on vacation could cast absentee ballots or vote early.

But how many people have to stay home from an election before a democracy becomes something else? When the Utah County clerk tells a reporter that the biggest concern he hears from people is that there are too many campaign signs, this could, of itself, be a sign. Politics has become a bother, not a matter of interest.

In a landmark decision last week, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the state has to accept electronic signatures on petitions when an unaffiliated candidate wants to be on the ballot.

Americans keep inching toward the day when Internet participation in civic affairs, perhaps even in voting, will be considered safe and allowable. But it won't matter much if no one cares.

And it's time to realize that policies enacted to exclude people from elections are pushing the trend in the wrong direction.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]. Visit his blog at deseretnews.com/blogs.