Is Utah’s turnout up or is it down?

When measured correctly, Utah’s voter turnout was a paltry 35%, and it wasn’t the best for a midterm since 1994.

The official word from the lieutenant governor’s office is that turnout was great in 2010, the highest for a midterm election since 1994. Several Utah newspapers have passed that report on without asking themselves whether it’s true (e.g. Daily Herald, the Spectrum). It’s not.

Okay, technically it’s true. If you measure turnout as the percent of registered voters who show up, then turnout was at a respectable sounding 51.6 percent. But that’s a silly way to report voter turnout.

When researchers study turnout, they measure it as the percent of eligible voters who show up.1 Eligible voters (in Utah) are citizens, 18 or older, and not currently incarcerated. Because soldiers, missionaries, and others living abroad may have difficulty casting a ballot, we can be generous and remove them from the eligible voter count also.

When measured correctly, Utah’s voter turnout was a paltry 35%, and it wasn’t the best for a midterm since 1994. Check out the chart below, plotting Utah’s turnout against average nationwide turnout (data from Michael McDonald at George Mason University).

Utah's turnout vs national averages, 1980-2010

Utah's turnout vs national averages, 1980-2010 (click to enlarge)

Why would the Lt. Governor’s method show that turnout in 2010 was higher than 2006, 2002, and 1998, but this method shows that turnout in 2010 was worse than in all those years except (barely) 2006? Apparently, some people have given up on voting to the point that they no longer even bother to register. And that should bother people who are in charge of running elections.

Turnout percentages are one measure of democracy’s health. If people believe that elections are important, they will register and vote. Estimating Utah’s turnout by looking only at registered voters is like estimating Utah’s average wealth by looking only at those who are employed.

Kudos to the Tribune for reporting clearly on these issues.

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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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