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Richard Davis: Utah floundering in low voter turnout, but House declines bill to look at causes, solutions

House Bill 200 was to commission a panel to study why voter turnout in Utah has declined so precipitously in the past 50 years. The House voted down the proposal, hindering understanding why voter participation has decreased and what can be done.
House Bill 200 was to commission a panel to study why voter turnout in Utah has declined so precipitously in the past 50 years. The House voted down the proposal, hindering understanding why voter participation has decreased and what can be done.
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When I was a student at BYU, Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie came to speak. At the time, Muskie was a former vice presidential candidate. (Later he would become secretary of state.) He was a tall, laconic New Englander who told a campaign story I still remember. He said when he was running for re-election, he approached an older woman on the street and asked for her vote. She looked up at him dismissively and said: “I never vote. It only encourages them.”

Sadly, it seems that increasing numbers of Utahns are taking her advice. Utah’s voter turnout is among the lowest in the nation. Only 29 percent of eligible Utah voters voted last year, which was below the voter turnout in 46 other states.

Yet it wasn’t always that way. In 1968, Utah was the No. 1 state in the nation in voter turnout. Elections were competitive, and Utahns’ votes mattered. Although small demographically, Utah up to that point had been a bellwether state in national politics. In the previous 10 presidential elections, Utah voted for the winner nine times.

On a more local level, Utah campaigns were vigorously waged between the two major political parties and voters often delivered their votes to candidates of one party and then to the other. Moreover, every election year, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged church members to go to the polls and vote, and frequently church curriculum materials discussed the need to participate in government. Holding a membership that constituted the vast majority of Utah voters, that influence likely was significant.

Things have changed. As a result, Rep. Patrice Arent, a Democrat, and Sen. Peter Knudson, a Republican, co-sponsored a bill (HB200) to commission a panel to study why voter turnout has declined so precipitously in the past 50 years.

According to the bill, which also is supported by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the panel would be responsible to “study issues related to voter participation in the state, including: past and present voter participation trends in the state and in the United States; administrative barriers that may inhibit voter participation; and other issues specific to the state that may affect voter participation.” Then, the panel was expected to report its work back to the Legislature, including recommendations on how to alleviate the problem.

It seemed simple enough — and important enough to warrant legislative investigation and action. The cost ($104,000) was minimal compared to the potential benefit of understanding administrative barriers to voting in order to reduce or eliminate them. What could be those barriers?

One may be voter registration. Thirteen states have instituted same-day voter registration (five of them in the past three years) to eliminate a step in the voting process. Many people do not tune in to electoral campaigns until a couple of days before voting day. By that time, it is too late to register. Utah could use same-day registration and potentially increase voting.

One conclusion of this task force could be low turnout is due to uncompetitive elections. Political scientists know that campaigns affect voter turnout. When voters are stimulated by campaigns, mobilized by political party organizations or campaign organizations, and feel their vote makes a difference, they are more likely to turn out to vote.

Yet in Utah, such competitive elections are rare. One-party legislative districts are the rule across most of the state. Solid Democratic districts in Salt Lake City and Republican ones most everywhere else may reduce competition.

One change would be eliminating the straight-party lever, which encourages quick and thoughtless voting. Still another could be creating an independent redistricting commission for the next legislative redistricting process in 2020. An independent commission is more likely to draw lines that create competitive districts across the state and encourage competitive campaigns and higher voter turnout.

Yet, despite the good this bill could do, the Utah House of Representatives last week voted down the proposal. As a result, legislators won’t know why voter participation has decreased or whether they can do anything about it.

Of course HB200 could come back. The legislative session isn’t over. If enough citizens protest the Legislature’s inaction, perhaps legislators will listen. It’s worth a try.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.