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What voter turnout is foreshadowing as we head into Election Day

Nationally, 2022 turnout is tracking high for a midterm — but some states, including Utah, are so far trending low. Here’s why that matters

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Ritchie Engelhardt drops off his ballot outside of the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City.

Ritchie Engelhardt drops off his ballot outside of the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. Nationally, 2022 turnout is tracking high for a midterm — but some states, including Utah, are so far trending low.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Midterm elections typically track low for voter participation, often paled by presidential election years. But this year is no typical midterm.

The national landscape is this: Republicans are confident they’ll at least take back the House and maybe the Senate, expecting to ride the wave of American frustration over inflation. Democrats are hoping the U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion will energize their voters, but it’s not clear if that will be enough to overtake Republicans in competitive races.

It all comes down to what groups of voters are the most energized to actually mail in their ballot or show up to the polls. It’s something The New York Times titled the “2022 Turnout Mystery,” noting most of the big Senate races are within “what political pros call the ‘margin of field’ — meaning that a superior turnout operation can mean the difference between winning and losing.”

The key questions at hand: Will young voters show up? Or will they disengage, leaving older voters to dominate. Will the Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade translate to a Democratic surge? Or will inflation frustrations propel Republicans to a greater extent?

Many of the most energized voters have likely voted early — so voter turnout so far can paint at least a partial picture of how the 2022 election is shaping up.

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A “Vote Here” sign is pictured at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

National voter turnout

Overall nationwide turnout is on track to be high for a midterm election, with more than 42 million Americans having voted early as of Monday afternoon, according to data analyzed by the U.S. Elections Project.

However, turnout percentages also vary depending on the state. Some states, like Georgia, are seeing surging early voting numbers that may even break 2018 records, ABC News reported. Other states like California are seeing early vote tallies that are lagging, suggesting overall turnout may not hit 2018 levels, said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who heads the U.S. Elections Project.

“It could be uneven,” McDonald told ABC News. “We’ll see high turnout, maybe exceeding 2018 In some states. And we may see lower turnout.”

He added that he’s becoming a “little skeptical” seeing the numbers coming in from states like California.

Democratic engagement appears to be up in competitive contests, but not so much in sleepier races.

“What we see in these competitive states are the Democrats are returning their ballots at a greater rate than Republicans,” McDonald told ABC News. “But if you look nationally, and you look at some of the states where there’s not these, these hot races are not happening — places like Florida or California — Democrats actually have a lower mail ballot return rate in those states.”

The U.S. Elections Project shows that of the states that record party affiliation, more Democrats have voted early than Republicans so far at 43% compared to 34%. However, Republican tallies are ticking up, especially over the past week, while Democrats have dipped, ABC News reported. That’s not surprising, given Republican sentiment toward vote-by-mail after former President Donald Trump claimed without evidence that expanding mail-in voting would increase voter fraud.

As of late last week, Republicans were “largely faring better across the country,” The New York Times reported, with early vote totals tracking ahead of 2020 levels in battleground states like Nevada and Florida, as well as blue states like California. However, states with major Senate or gubernatorial races like Pennsylvania and Arizona are seeing Democratic early vote totals at 2020 levels or higher.

“The emerging picture — which is incomplete, because fewer than half of all states report vote totals by party registration — is of a midterm election with high overall interest, broad Republican enthusiasm and somewhat narrower Democratic intensity so far,” the Times reported.

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Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, left, greets Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen and Salt Lake County chief deputy clerk Lannie Chapman during early voting at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. Chapman is running to replace Swensen, who is retiring at the end of the year.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

How is Utah shaping up?

As of Monday morning, Utah’s statewide turnout sat at 31.1%, according to Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, with upward of 536,000 ballots submitted.

That’s tracking low compared to 2018 levels — although Utah’s 2018 election saw extraordinary voter participation at 75.5%, thanks to several high-profile ballot initiatives, including one to legalize medical marijuana.

“We never know for sure, (but) it does feel a little low,” Shelly Jackson, Utah’s deputy director of elections, told the Deseret News in an interview Monday.

Jackson added state election officials are encouraging county clerks to be prepared “for a little bit bigger turnout” on Election Day. “But we also know that over the weekend people have been depositing by-mail ballots in the drop boxes, that they’ll continue to do that.”

In Utah’s most populated county, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said turnout hit about 38% as of Friday. While she didn’t expect it to reach 2018’s 82% turnout, she said she was hoping for 70% this year. However, she said the numbers aren’t pacing to hit that target.

“This isn’t going to be that,” Swensen said. “Right now ... I’m thinking it’s going to be closer to 60% or 65%. But maybe I’m still being too optimistic.”

Swensen said only 10,000 ballots came in the mail Monday, compared to what she’d hoped would be 20,000.

“I’m like, ‘seriously?’” she said, though she added it’s not surprising considering registration numbers in Salt Lake County have also been down this year. In 2020, the county had 610,000 registered voters, but after updating voter rolls that’s down to 592,000 this year.

“I think they’re just not as interested in the election this year as they were in 2018 by any means,” Swensen said. “I think they’re just not as engaged in the election itself.”

Republicans in Utah are slightly outpacing Democrats so far, according to U.S. Elections Project data, with Republicans returning 36.9% of the mail-in ballots compared to 32.6% of Democrats.

Who is going to win, Mike Lee or Evan McMullin?

What does Utah’s low turnout so far mean for its most high profile race, the contest between Republican Sen. Mike Lee and independent challenger Evan McMullin? It’s good news for Lee and bad news for McMullin, said Matthew Burbank, political science professor at the University of Utah.

“For McMullin, he’s better off with higher voter turnout,” Burbank said, noting McMullin’s strategy has been to build a coalition of Democrats and independent voters, as well as disaffected Republicans.

“He really needs, particularly among Democrats, to have fairly good turnout there. ... He really needs to draw Democrats into that race and motivate those unaffiliated voters, these independent voters, and he needs to pick up a fair amount of dissatisfied Republicans. In a way, all those kind of depend on turnout.”

On the other hand, a lower turnout would benefit Lee, Burbank said, “because his voters are much more likely to be Republican, older voters” that are typically more reliable at the polls.

A variety of factors could be influencing Utah’s lagging turnout.

First, there obviously isn’t the same number of high-profile ballot initiatives like in 2018. And while the Lee-McMullin race is hotly contested — set in motion by an extraordinary move on the part of Utah Democrats deciding at convention to not put forth their own candidate, and to instead back McMullin as the best shot at unseating Lee — it comes with drawbacks that could be leaving some voters disengaged.

The race, Burbank said, has turned “fairly negative,” which could be turning off voters. Utah Democrats’ move to back McMullin also left a bad taste in some Democrats’ mouths, leaving them feeling disenfranchised. However, other Democrats might be feeling more energized to vote in the race as a unique, unprecedented opportunity to compete with a sitting Republican senator.

“It’s an interesting dynamic and may draw some people in,” Burbank said. “But also you might think that there are people, particularly Democrats, who aren’t all that enthusiastic about voting in that race because there isn’t a strong Democratic candidate.”