An easy way to boost midterm-year turnout in Utah

We could expect a permanent 6.7% boost in Utah’s midterm-year turnout levels if we permanently moved gubernatorial elections to midterm years.

Utah’s lieutenant governor declared that 2010 had the best turnout for a midterm election in Utah since 1994. Although I have criticized that claim, I agree that 2010’s turnout was better than we might have expected if Utah’s turnout had continued the downward trend discussed in this post. Something happened in 2010 that helped midterm-year turnout. What was it?

It was the presence of a gubernatorial race on the ballot.

Usually, Utah elects its governors in presidential years, one of only 9 states to do so. Most states–34 of them–elect their governors in midterm years.1 In 2010, Utah held a special gubernatorial election because Jon Huntsman resigned early in his second term. And it appears that this special election pushed up turnout in Utah.

I gathered turnout data (via Michael McDonald) for every state from 1980 through 2008. (Official 2010 data aren’t available from every state yet.) Then, I ran a bit of analysis to see how these timing decisions influence turnout.2 Here’s what I found.

In a midterm election year without a governor’s race or senate election at the top of the ticket, expect turnout of 36.2%. (That’s averaging across 50 states.)

  • Add a senate race: Turnout rises by 4.9 percent.
  • Add a governor’s race: Turnout rises by 6.7 percent.
  • Add both races: Turnout rises by 8.2 percent.

In a presidential election year without a governor’s race or senate election, expect turnout to be 21.9 percentage points higher (i.e. 58.1%) than in a midterm year.

  • Add a senate race: No change.
  • Add a governor’s race: No change.
  • Add both races: No change.3

In other words, we could expect a permanent 6.7% boost in Utah’s midterm-year turnout levels if we permanently moved gubernatorial elections to midterm years. This change would not hurt presidential-year turnout at all.

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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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