Steve Griffin, Deseret News
FILE - Citizens cast their ballots at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Election Day Tuesday, June 26, 2018.f

SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney, hot-button citizens initiatives and leftover emotions from the 2016 presidential race are setting up to help haul Utah out of the voter participation basement in the upcoming midterm, according to observers.

And Utah Democrats are adding new voters at a rate outpacing their GOP counterparts by almost 3-1, when measured as a percentage of growth.

Morgan Lyon Cotti, Hinckley Institute of Politics associate director, said current ballot items and lingering emotions that track back to the 2016 election are combining to incentivize Utah voters.

"Not only do we have a very full ballot with competitive races and propositions, there is also a greater civic engagement and excitement about politics happening in Utah," Cotti said. "The 2016 election took a lot of people by surprise and this cycle ... people who opposed President Trump in 2016 are deciding they need to be more engaged and people excited by Trump are anxious to continue to support him."

Cotti noted Romney, the GOP candidate for outgoing Sen. Orrin Hatch's open U.S. Senate seat, has been wooing, and winning, Utah voters going back to his 2008 primary victory in the state, where he captured almost 90 percent of the Republican vote. The Romney factor, combined with ballot items that address medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and redistricting issues, as well as a very close 4th Congressional District race are all, Cotti said, upping the enthusiasm ante for this midterm.

Congressional elections — when a president isn't on the ballot — typically bring dismal voter turnouts of around 40 percent of registered Utah voters, state figures show. Those historical performance numbers, however, seem set to be turned around in dramatic fashion, if voter registration rates are any indication.

Utah Election Director Justin Lee said a snapshot of voter registration volumes over the past month or so, compared to the same time period in the 2014 midterms, show a jump approaching 1,000 percent.

"We ran some numbers ... and in the last month, or a little over, and have seen almost 24,000 new voters registered," Lee said. "That compares to about 2,700 in the same time frame in 2014."

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said she has been preparing for a vibrant midterm turnout and believes this cycle could see record voter participation in Salt Lake County.

"We're seeing an extraordinary volume of new registrations," Swensen said. "There is clearly a high level of enthusiasm ... and we're staffing and preparing for a 70 percent turnout."

While overall voter registration numbers are up by around 87,000 voters, or approximately 5.7 percent over this time in 2016, Utah Democrats appear to be making greater gains than the state's Republican Party in terms of adding new voters.

A comparison of state voter registration data from this cycle versus the same time in 2016 reflects the Democratic Party has built its affiliated voter rolls by almost 15 percent while state Republicans have added about 5.6 percent. Overall numbers, which include both active and inactive voters, still show wide margins in favor of the Utah GOP with 756,136 party affiliates as of Oct. 22 versus 716,181 voters registered with the party as of Oct. 24, 2016. Dems were sitting at 200,881 party registrants on Oct. 22 compared with 174,710 on Oct. 24, 2016. Unaffiliated voter numbers have dropped since 2016, with 610,041 down to 606,203 as of earlier this week.

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According to data compiled by the nonprofit United States Election Project, Utah will have about 2,081,767 eligible voters in 2018, a number compiled using U.S. Census Bureau data that accounts for all Utah residents who are of eligible voting age, then backing out the 6.9 percent of residents who are noncitizens and the 6,628 men and women currently incarcerated in the Utah state prison system.

A 2017 Utah Foundation report on voter issues in the state noted Utah was 39th in the country for voter participation. That rate, according to the report, has been trending downward since the 1970s, when the state was among the nation's leaders in percentage of voters engaging with the election process.