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Opinion: Utahns could do much better at being good citizens

People in the state are showing up in public forums and possibly making gains on the voting front. But they have room for improvement in exercising their rights, duties and privileges as citizens

A woman holds an American flag during a Utah County Commission meeting.
A woman holds an American flag while attending a Utah County Commission meeting in Provo last year. Utahns rank well in terms of attending civic meetings, but they fall short in other areas of engagement.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Going back 200 years, strong citizen engagement in the democratic process and in civic improvement has served as a barometer of the vitality of the American republic. It’s a matter of good government: At the state and local levels, civic engagement has significant implications for the effectiveness and efficiency of government, the quality of services and the responsiveness of public officials to citizen priorities.

A decline in civic engagement can reduce the accountability of the public sector and produce a negative public spirit.

For Utah, the current state of civic engagement is a mixed bag. This is a matter of concern beyond just good government issues, because civic engagement is a means of building social capital.

“Social capital” refers to the bonds between people and among networks, which they can use to benefit themselves and the group as a whole. Low social capital levels often lead to poor economic and social outcomes, both for individuals and for populations. Policymakers try to address those poor outcomes by various means, such as educational reforms, election reforms, public assistance programs and law enforcement interventions.

As social capital declines, the challenges become more acute — and social scientists across the political spectrum affirm that social capital in the U.S. is in long-term decline. But in places where social capital is comparatively robust, it can translate into heightened economic prospects and lower demands on the public sector.

Yet, despite the importance of social capital, public attention to the factors affecting it may receive inadequate attention from the public and policymakers. The Utah Foundation recently launched its Utah Social Capital Series to help give the matter the attention it deserves.

The first report is “The Measure of a Citizen: Civic Engagement in Utah.” It presents data and analysis on three key measures of citizen engagement: voter turnout, citizen attendance at public meetings and the number of advocacy organizations.

Voter turnout in Utah has improved in recent election cycles — after having languished near the very bottom nationally. The state rank surged to 13th among the 50 states in the 2018 midterm election. This probably has a lot to do with mail-in ballots. It may also have to do with some interesting voter initiatives appearing on the 2018 ballot.

However, in the 2020 presidential election cycle, a nationwide push to allow voting from home appears to have recalibrated things. In last year’s election, Utah’s turnout ranked only 39th nationally and sixth among the eight Mountain States.

It should be noted here that the success of the American experiment depends not just on the number of votes cast, but on an informed electorate. Unfortunately, according to a just-released Annenberg poll, 44% of adults in the U.S. cannot name the three branches of government.

The American experiment also depends upon an engaged citizenry. Citizen attendance at public meetings is probably a better indicator of civic engagement than filling in a vote-by-mail form on the kitchen counter. And meeting participation is a major strong point for Utah. In 2019, Vermont and Maine were the only states in the nation that outperformed Utah on meeting participation.

On the other hand, when it comes to the number of advocacy organizations, Utah has consistently trended below the nation at large during the past decade. In 2020, Utah’s 2.6 advocacy groups per 100,000 people ranked 43rd in the nation.

The Utah Foundation compared our state both to the nation at large and to the eight states in the region. Across all three measures of civic engagement, Montana appears to be the most consistent strong performer among the Mountain States. Nevada is the most consistent poor performer.

Meanwhile, Utah’s citizens are showing up in the public forum and possibly making gains on the voting front. But it appears we have room for improvement in exercising our rights, duties and privileges as citizens.

Peter Reichard is president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at peter@utahfoundation.org. Find the new report, “The Measure of a Citizen,” at utahfoundation.org.