Is Utah’s turnout low because it has so many young voters?

Utah’s youth are not to blame for Utah’s lower-than-average turnout.

In my last post, I showed that voter turnout in Utah is worse than the lieutenant governor’s statistics imply. I admit that the graph I used then was a bit complicated. Here’s a far simpler one. For each even-numbered year since 1980, I’ve subtracted the national average turnout rate (as % of VEP; see my last post) from Utah’s turnout rate. A positive number means that Utah’s turnout was higher than the national average. A negative number means that Utah’s turnout was lower than the national average. Here’s the chart (click to enlarge):

Utah's turnout vs the national average

Utah's turnout vs the national average (click to enlarge)

Utah’s turnout was consistently higher than average from 1980 until 1994. (That’s a 0.4, not a 4.0, in 1994). From 1996 on, Utah has been consistently lower than average. But you can see that it wasn’t 1994-1996 that was decisive. Rather, there was a gradual decline in Utah’s turnout rates after 1982 that has only recently leveled off.

Please take a moment to understand what that chart shows. It shows the difference between Utah’s turnout and the nation’s average turnout. The declining numbers don’t show that turnout nationally is falling. They show that turnout in Utah is falling relative to turnout everywhere else. This problem of falling turnout is Utah’s problem, not the nation’s.

So what is happening in Utah (but not elsewhere) that explains this fall?

Utah’s chief election administrator, lieutenant governor Greg Bell, blames Utah’s youthfulness. From the Salt Lake Tribune:

Bell blamed that on the many young voters in Utah, the state with the nation’s lowest average age. Mark Thomas, Bell’s state election director, said only about one-third of registered voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted this year. “That’s 40 percentage points behind other age groups, so that dragged down our overall numbers,” he said.

The chart above disproves this argument. Yes, Utah has a younger population than other states, but that’s been true since 1980. In the 1990 census, the national median age was 32.8, 8.6 years older than Utah’s median of 26.2 In 2000, the national median was 35.3, 8.2 years older than Utah’s median of 27.1. In 2008, the national median according to Census Dept estimates was 37.6, 9.1 years older than Utah’s 28.5.

The nation’s average age has been around 8 or 9 years older than Utah’s average age throughout the time period shown in the chart. It doesn’t make sense to say that this difference suddenly explains Utah’s lower-than-average turnout. If that were true, then why did Utah have such high turnout 20-30 years ago?

Punchline: Utah’s youth are not to blame for Utah’s lower-than-average turnout. So what is? I’ll come back to that in a future post.

Thanks to Michael McDonald for the turnout data.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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4 Responses to Is Utah’s turnout low because it has so many young voters?

  1. Daniel B says:

    What’s to blame? Moving the primary election from September to June.

  2. Daniel B says:

    Because people aren’t paying attention until after Labor Day. In as much as the wonks and the hacks and the junkies are all paying attention much earlier, most people don’t gear up until September. June has kids getting out of school, vacations, scout and girls camp, and the Fourth of July is just around the corner. After Labor Day, Congress is back in session, the General Election is just around the corner, and the proximity of things raises the stakes and the interest.

    I think it’s part of the reason every other state that has a primary generally waits until later in the year to hold the race. They also limit the race to either a primary or a convention, but not both…but that’s another discussion altogether.

    Another theory goes that turnout is low because of a closed primary. As a Republican in a Democratic senate district on Salt Lake’s east side, I have found my Senator’s name on the Republican primary’s rolls, so I’m not completely convinced this is a salient argument; however, I do think it may hold some water. However, it needs testing.

    • Adam Brown says:

      Most of what you say would help explain (accurately) why turnout is so low in caucuses and primaries here in Utah. The data in my post deals with general election turnout, though.

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