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 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.