Conducting elections entirely by mail appears to have increased voter turnout in the many cities that conducted municipal elections that way last month, but that alone isn’t the key to reversing Utah’s long and persistent decline in voter turnout.
As a Utah Foundation report on voting in Utah, released this week, said, Oregon saw a similar bump when it began mail-in voting, but that was likely due only to a short-term novelty effect. “Additionally, research suggests the implementation of vote-by-mail does not add voters who would not have participated otherwise,” the study said.
No, Utah’s troubling decline in voter participation won’t be solved so easily. It requires a multi-pronged approach that also includes easier access to registration, changes in the convention/caucus method of party nominations, a more robust two-party system and a greater general awareness of election issues and civic responsibility.
It appears Utahns soon will see a change in the political party nominating processes, allowing candidates not chosen for the ballot by convention delegates to get there through a petition. That would be one step in the right direction, although it remains to be seen how effective it will be in tempering the effect of political zealots who, because of their motivations, often exert pressures on political parties beyond what their numbers would suggest.
The Utah Foundation provides a sobering glimpse into the state’s lack of political competition. This year, 65 local governments canceled elections because of a lack of opposition candidates. Over the last decade, the winners of more than half the elections in Utah, including for statewide and federal offices, had no competition or won by 30 percent or more, indicating little more than token opposition.
This, the report said, is “at least partially due to Utah’s caucus convention system.” It’s also a big reason, we assume, why only 30 percent of eligible voters statewide cast ballots in 2014. Voters have little reason to show up when ballots offer no choices. The lack of choices, meanwhile, renders the tug and pull of the democratic process meaningless.
Utah has done much to increase access to easy voter registration. Potential voters may register online or while registering their cars. A pilot program offered in some counties allows them to register on Election Day, and another program allows under-aged voters to pre-register as young as 16.
The report references studies that show Election Day registration can improve turnout. We urge the state to make that a permanent part of the state’s election policy. Also, engaging young people who soon will be of voting age makes a great deal of sense.
Significantly, a previous Utah Foundation report found that 90 percent of Utahns believe they are registered to vote, when in fact only 63 percent of them are.
Of course easy registration does not turn people into informed voters. That takes personal initiative that, if lacking, can be encouraged through cultural forces ranging from family traditions to civics education in schools.
As the report notes, low turnout “cannot be pinned on any one reason.” It stands to reason that its solution also must lie in the combination of many things. Finding that right combination will take the combined efforts of academics, politicians, researchers, religious communities and many other interested parties. Clearly, however, Utah’s future as a vibrant and inviting place to live depends a great deal on its citizens’ willingness to take self-government seriously.