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Utah voter turnout: A state of apathy

For half a century, turnout has been in decline; why reversing the slide matters

SALT LAKE CITY — For Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. the news wasn't good.

Even though he had just won re-election, Utah's voter turnout had been dismal — 48th out of 50 states. The figures had been trending downward for years. Seeking answers, Huntsman reached out to 20 of the most prominent figures in the state to fix the problem.

The first meeting, held in a side parlor at the Governor's Mansion in February 2009, had a sense of urgency. The chairman of the group, Larry Miller, was confined to a hospital bed but insisted on joining the meeting via conference call; doctors and nurses could be heard working in the background of Miller's call.

For the 20 men and women comprising the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy, the call to action resonated as timely: while voter turnout in the U.S. has held relatively steady since 1908, it has fallen through the floor in Utah during the past 50 years. In 1964, 78.5 percent of eligible voters in Utah cast ballots; by 2008 that number had plummeted to 50.5 percent, a record low for a presidential election.

In a letter written to the commission three months after its inception, Huntsman laid out the problem (citizens weren't voting) and the stakes (an engaged electorate is essential to democracy). He encouraged the group to figure out the roots of voter apathy and tasked his commissioners with looking at five specific areas that may have been contributing to the problem: ethics laws, campaign finance rules, redistricting procedures, lobbying regulations, and the way elections were carried out. He hoped that in doing so the commission could help improve Utah's participation in elections and overall civic engagement, two measurements of healthy and vibrant democracies.

Nearly two years after the Governor's Commission first convened and 10 months following its final recommendations, it remains unclear how successful the group fared in reaching its goals. State elections director Mark Thomas predicts voter turnout in 2010 will be 70-75 percent of registered voters (equivalent to approximately 54 percent of eligible voters), a modest increase over 2008, but far from a sufficiently strong figure to decisively quell the Beehive State's decades-in-the-making steady decline in voter turnout.

Although straightforward, the stakes for whether Utah's malaise of voter apathy can be righted are clear — either fix the problem, or cede the power to select elected officials to a small group of special interest groups, political activists and corporate entities.

"I believe (voting) is an absolute imperative responsibility of a democracy," said Frank Pignanelli, a former state legislator who served on the Governor's Commission. "Those who choose not to vote on a regular basis in my mind are committing a grave crime against our democracy, our country and our state.

"You have to participate in order to make sure that there's accountability by our elected officials, and also that the will of our population is expressed."

The 2008 presidential election simultaneously marked America's third-highest voter turnout of the last century and the Beehive State's all-time low for a presidential election during the same time period.

"What's interesting about Utah is that it's one of these states where the overall trend (for voter turnout) is actually going down despite the national trend going upward," said Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University and Brookings Institute fellow who runs the public-interest United States Election Project.

Although explanations for the downward creep of Utah's voter turnout vary somewhat from one scholar to the next, many experts tend to agree that Utahns aren't voting simply because they consider the election results to be a foregone conclusion.

Translation: Republicans always win Utah's statewide elections.

"We don't have very competitive elections," says J. Quin Monson, BYU political science professor and associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "Over time that has led to a lack of (campaigning) — we don't have a lot of mobilization activity by parties or outside groups or candidates. I think psychologically for voters, there's a group that declines to vote because they figure the outcome is not in question."

Dan Jones, a prominent pollster and a member of Huntsman's Commission on Strengthening Democracy, traces the lopsidedness of Utah elections to the early 1970s when, in short succession, the Supreme Court outlawed prayer in schools, divisive candidate George McGovern earned the Democrat party's 1972 nomination for president and court case Roe v. Wade secured the permanent legalization of abortion. In other words, many Utah voters migrated to the right once social issues like school prayer and abortion began to define the difference between Republicans and Democrats.

"Democrats got labeled (in Utah) as too liberal on the social issues," Jones recalls. "Prior to the 1972 election (Utah) was a third Republican, a third Democrat and a third Independent. Then it went 42 percent Republican to 21 percent Democrat, and now Republicans are in the low 50s to 19 (for the Democrats). That's a heck of a spread."

For a different perspective on the cause of low voter turnout in Utah, Lindsay Zizumbo directly indicts the state's caucus and convention system — something the program manager at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics believes constitutes the highest barrier in the country for a candidate to appear on a Primary ballot.

"Ninety-nine percent of the population is pretty much irrelevant until the general election, at which time candidates have already been chosen," Zizumbo said. "I believe that directly depresses (voter) turnout in the state."

Through no fault of its own, the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy got off to a rather inauspicious start.

First, chairman Larry Miller passed away two weeks after the commission's first meeting. The Hinckley Institute's Kirk Jowers filled in as Acting Chair, but to honor Miller, no person ever joined the commission as his replacement. (Accordingly, many of the group's final recommendations came by a vote of 19-0 with one voter absent.)

Next, commissioners had the rug pulled out from under their feet when two of the governor's five mandates — ethics and redistricting — were unceremoniously taken off the table.

"Several legislators were apparently concerned about too much light being spread on those issues once our first report came out," Jowers says.

Early on, the commission cast a wide net by objectively comparing Utah's election-related laws to those of the other 49 states.

"Generally, my goal was to find and reform laws that were weakening democracy," Jowers explains. "In other words, I needed to know whether Utah had laws that were disenfranchising, disabling or discouraging citizens from voting. … We were seeking outliers. If Utah was one of two or three states doing something in a very unique way, we wanted to know why."

Ultimately, the commission submitted eight recommendations in December 2009 on topics such as overseas military voter reform, campaign finance reform and improving the voter registration process. Several of the recommendations have already inspired new laws while others haven't, but still might. For example, new rules are now in place for political lobbyists that limit donations, and Utah is on the cutting edge of allowing voters to register online, whereas a bill proposing election day registration didn't pass muster during the last legislative session.

"Perhaps the Commission's greatest legacy," Jowers speculates, "will be that 19 commissioners from the far left to the far right and everything in between, came to together and spent hundreds of hours to examine, research and propose solutions on real problems. It was exhilarating watching the initial fighting evolve into intense research and discussion into unanimous recommendations."

"My two regrets are that we lost our mandate on ethics and redistricting and that we did not tackle the biggest impediment to voting in Utah: our very unique caucus convention system."

Opinions vary regarding what low voter turnout reveals about Utah's population. Monson, for example, believes many Utahns are simply too busy to vote in elections often perceived to be one-sided.

"At the margins, what happens is that you've got to make a choice between making an effort to vote or doing something else that's putting a demand on your time," Monson said. "It's not as if the entire state has stopped voting, it's just that at the margins our turnout has gone down over time, and that's because when people make the trade-offs in terms of deciding whether to go vote or not, at the margins other things are winning out — work and kids and other demands on your time."

Far less optimistic in his outlook is Jones, who attributes the decreased voter turnout to one thing and one thing only.

"If you want one word, it's apathy," Jones mused. "Utah has only gone down in desire to go out and vote and participate in the democratic process. It's very alarming to me."

Be that as it may, Jowers says this upcoming Election Day represents the chance for every Utahn to make a personal decision whether to practice the kind of civic engagement necessary for propagating the American way of life.

"Democracy is not for the lazy, but instead requires engaged citizenship," Jowers concludes. "Almost all of the ills in society today occur in vacuums created by apathy. Thus, our elected officials will always more readily respond to motivated voters, but when constituents do not turn out and vote, the special interests will always fill that vacuum."

"People must realize that policies, party strengths and weakness, and electoral successes and failures typically develop over time and elections are the time markers that define political movements. In short, every vote counts and not just if it is an extremely close race."