The results are in. Super Tuesday was super for Utah. Candidates campaigned here, voters participated in record numbers, vote by mail worked and Utah’s voice became relevant on the national stage. Kudos to the Utah Legislature, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (state’s chief election officer), state election officials, county clerks and the political parties that made this success happen.
Some will remember that the 2016 presidential primary election in Utah was a bit of a mess. The state opted not to fund a presidential primary election and instead left the task to political parties. The Utah Republican and Democratic parties opted for the caucus route, which by its very “fixed-time” nature limits participation. The Utah Republican Party allowed registered voters to vote online, but experienced technical problems.
On the Democratic side, which hosts an open primary (you don’t have to be a registered Democrat to vote in it), some caucus sites faced long lines and a shortage of ballots as a larger than expected number of voters turned out to support Bernie Sanders.
Relatively few candidates visited Utah in 2016. Even the results to some people seemed a bit off. For example, Republican caucus voters supported Sen. Ted Cruz, followed by Gov. John Kasich, and then Donald Trump.
Compare that to record participation in Utah’s 2020 vote-by-mail presidential primary. The Utah Elections Office reports voter turnout reached 32.5%, the highest turnout for a presidential primary in state history. Approximately 480,000 Utahns voted. That’s no small feat, and something that should make all of us in a representative democracy smile.
Perhaps the biggest benefit to Utah from Super Tuesday is relevance on the national scene. Utah used to be a “late state” in the voting cycle. By the time we voted the elections had been largely determined. Utah was a “flyover state” and we didn’t get as much face time or experience a personal connection with most of the candidates.
Utah is no longer a flyover state. Joe Biden, Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bloomberg, Tulsi Gabbard and Bill Weld all campaigned in Utah. Contrast that with the days when nobody seemed to care about our relatively small, western interior state.
Because of Utah’s new-found excitement and relevance in the presidential election we feel a connection to the process. The election is the talk of the town. We compare perspectives, sometimes quarrel and learn from one another. In my family we used our family text group to exchange thoughts and share interesting articles. I learned from my millennial children and I hope they learned from me. We engaged. We imagined the possibilities.
For example, many are talking about what happens next. That’s the lived experience of this election. Many are predicting Biden will select Klobuchar as his running mate. She brings a Midwest state, relative youth, a pragmatic track record and a female voice to the ticket. Bloomberg, with a disappointing Super Tuesday, may turn his voice to support the Biden team. On the Republican side, President Trump will cruise to the nomination, but a global slowdown caused by the coronavirus may provide an economic headwind. Conversations and speculation like this build interest, motivate conversations and generate connection with the election process.
When we talk, we engage. When we engage, we learn. When we learn, we elect people who can lead. With great leadership, we thrive. This is what democracy is about — sizing up the candidates, seeing how they perform, and imagining the possibilities for our country and our families. Most importantly, democracy is about showing up and being heard.
The move to a presidential primary cost Utah $3 million. Some will argue that’s too much. I disagree. They say, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” By making Utah’s vote convenient (vote by mail), relevant (Super Tuesday), personal (candidate visits), and real (voter turnout) we become participants — not spectators — in the magic democracy that is America.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.