The first gut reaction to last Tuesday's primary election might be a horrified gasp at the turnout. That would be justified.

In Utah's 3rd Congressional District, unofficial results show less than 10 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. In Salt Lake County alone, turnout was about 7.5 percent, according to the county elections clerk Web site.

It is a fact, then, that the other 90 percent or more allowed a small fraction of the people to remove an incumbent congressman. And, because the 3rd District is overwhelmingly Republican, it is an odds-on bet that they chose the next congressman, as well.

Given a century of hard-won struggles in this country by people tired of rules allowing only a small portion of the people to vote, that is pitiful.

But the second gut reaction is more problematic. It is that Utah voters simply don't care any more. This usually is put into the larger context of how American voter turnout has been in a steep free-fall since the 1960s, sort of in inverse proportion to gasoline prices. Often, people will attribute this to cynicism caused by the influence of wealthy interests in campaigns and insulting, negative advertising.

The only problem with this view is that it's wrong. It scolds the voters, when the blame belongs elsewhere.

Tuesday's primary had its share of negative campaigning, especially in the normally placid race for state treasurer. And campaigns are becoming increasingly expensive, even as campaign finance laws are proving ineffective. But those things didn't make people stay home.

For that, you have two things to blame: the switch several years ago to a June primary, rather than one in September; and the Republican Party's decision to restrict its primaries to registered party members only.

Look at some quick facts. You may be surprised.

Voter turnout nationwide hasn't declined in any meaningful way for at least 36 years. In Utah, it is even longer than that.

In the 1968 general election, 76.7 percent of the voting-age population in Utah cast ballots. If you narrowed the field to only registered voters, the turnout was 77.9 percent. If that sounds like the good old days, consider that in 2004, 57.7 percent of Utah's voting-age population voted, but that the turnout among registered voters was 72.6 percent, or not much less than in '68. That data comes from uselectionatlas.org.

It doesn't take a lot of hard analysis to see that the main difference between the two eras has to do with the voting-age population. John Samples, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Representative Government, wrote a paper four years ago that offered an explanation. He cited research showing that the number of adults in America who are eligible to vote has become smaller through the years. In 2004, an estimated 17.5 million adults, most likely immigrants who had not obtained citizenship, and convicted felons, weren't eligible.

Account for that, and Utahns look about as politically engaged today as they were 40 years ago.

Primary elections always bring out fewer voters than do general elections, but the last time Utah staged a September primary, in 1992, turnout was nearly 50 percent. Since the state switched to June in 1994, statewide turnout hasn't been more than 20 percent.

Two years ago, a Dan Jones & Associates poll found that if you combined the people who stayed home because they didn't want to register Republican and the ones who were doing other things in June, you account for about 40 percent of the people who didn't vote. Last Tuesday, you had to be a Republican to vote in all but the school board races.

I understand the reasons both these rules are in effect. A June primary allows the parties to spend more time focusing, and spending, on the general election. A closed primary protects the party's interests from outsiders.

It's just that, in a state dominated by one party, those rules also tend to remove large numbers of voters from any meaningful participation, and that isn't good.


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