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Have Americans won the war on low voter turnout? Don’t celebrate yet

Voters complete their ballots during Election Day voting at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. A resolution in the state Legislature would recognize Utah’s success in holding the 2020 election.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

It should have been a routine committee hearing about an innocuous resolution.

State Rep. Joel Briscoe, a Democrat representing part of Salt Lake City, wanted to recognize Utah’s success in holding the 2020 election, from its secure vote-by-mail procedures to its lack of fraud, to its hardworking county clerks and volunteer election workers, and to its voters, who showed up in numbers not seen in at least six decades.

And yet the resolution had to withstand attacks and an effort to table it before finally passing favorably, by a vote of 7-2, out of a committee last week. Then, when the measure reached the floor of the House, it was amended to remove any mention of how well vote-by-mail went or the lack of fraud.

“I think it sends a message that we don’t necessarily want to send,” Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, said in opposition during the committee hearing. He objected to applauding the lack of fraud in Utah. “That kind of implies there was none. We don’t know that.”

The taint on the 2020 election, a theme pushed by former President Donald Trump long before the actual election was conducted Nov. 3, has created an unusual dichotomy. A January poll conducted for the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics by Scott Rasmussen found that 41% of Utahns believed the election was fraught with “widespread fraud.” Slightly more, 49%, did not believe this, and 10% were unsure.

Yet, despite the calculated warnings about a stolen election, 90.09% of registered voters cast ballots in Utah, according to state figures. That was better than any turnout in the modern era, eclipsing even the 1960 election, in which 89.47% of registered voters, spurred by the close Nixon-Kennedy race, showed up.

Nationally, the election attracted the highest turnout in more than a century, according to a Washington Post analysis. Once you go that far back, comparisons become tricky because women weren’t allowed to vote and Black and other minority citizens often were illegally prohibited from doing so.

For years, politicians, political scientists and pundits like me have fretted over how to increase voter participation. This issue was particularly important in Utah, where turnout had dwindled alarmingly. In the 2014 midterm elections, only 46% of registered voters showed up. If you look at eligible voters, which includes those who never bothered to register, it was 30%.

That meant less than a third of the people were making decisions for the rest. Back then, I wondered if the poor turnout was “a sign of not caring, or of cynicism.” That seems naive, now that cynicism is at unmatched levels and nearly every registered voter showed up.

So, did we win the effort to increase voter turnout? That depends. In terms of sheer numbers, yes. But what about in terms of public engagement and civic duty?

The only real difference I can see between today and 2014 is a higher level of anger, and even rage. 2020 was a refutation of the notion that motor-voter registration, public service announcements or any other official get-out-the-vote schemes held the answer. All we needed was something, or someone, to get our blood boiling.

However, anger is a poor substitute for civic duty and engagement. It can’t be confused with serious inquiry and debate.

If a distrust in election integrity becomes ingrained in the wallpaper of American life, it could lead to a feeling that elections don’t matter. Then, once a favorite candidate is gone and passions subside, turnout will again drop.

Political science professor Lonna R. Atkeson, the director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico, may have stated the obvious recently when she said, “Perception of integrity is fundamental to democracy — that people believe in the process itself and that it is producing a legitimate outcome.” She was quoted by The GroundTruth Project on voting rights in America, in a post that highlighted claims from both the right and left about various aspects of elections problems.

The United States has survived plenty of election troubles in the past, including allegations that John F. Kennedy illegally won that 1960 election and that hanging chads confused the outcome in 2000. However, it has never had to deal with such widely held notions of fraud with so little evidence.

But it is astounding that in Utah, where, by all indications, ballots were counted with integrity, including in the razor-thin 4th Congressional District race, some lawmakers would hesitate to declare success.

We won’t know whether we won the war on voter apathy until the next relatively quiet election comes along. But we shouldn’t be confused about lauding a state that did things right.