Utah’s abysmal turnout is not caused by bloated registration rolls. It is caused by citizens choosing not to participate.
Yesterday, a legislative committee debated legislation that would remove a citizen from the voter registration rolls if he or she fails to participate in consecutive elections. The bill’s sponsor claims that this legislation would boost Utah’s voter turnout rate compared to other states. After all, he reasons, turnout is calculated by dividing the number of ballots cast by the number of total registered voters, so removing inactive voters from the registration rolls will have the effect of increasing the turnout percentage.
This bill may have some usefulness when it comes to efficient administration of state elections. But let’s consider this argument about turnout for a moment.
As it happens, researchers do not calculate turnout as a percentage of total registered voters. They calculate it as a percentage of those eligible to vote, regardless of whether they are registered. “Eligible” means at least 18 years old, a citizen, and (in most states) not incarcerated. It is true that Utah’s government calculates turnout as a percentage of registered voters, but that is an unorthodox method, one I have written about previously.
But here’s the rub: Utah’s declining turnout isn’t caused by bloated registration rolls. Rather, it is caused by fewer eligible citizens voting. Maybe that’s because they aren’t registering in the first place; maybe that’s because they are registered but not showing up. But even when we measure turnout correctly (as a percentage of eligible voters), we see that Utah has fallen to the bottom of national rankings on voter turnout. Here’s the data (courtesy of Michael McDonald at George Mason University).1
|Year||Utah’s turnout (% of eligible voters)||Utah’s turnout rank (% of eligible voters)|
The trend is clear. From 1980 until 1992, Utah’s turnout was consistently in the top half of national rankings. From 1994 on, Utah’s turnout has been in the bottom half. Since 2006, Utah’s turnout has been in the bottom tenth. Utah’s abysmal turnout is not caused by bloated registration rolls. It is caused by citizens choosing not to participate. For whatever reasons, citizens aren’t registering to vote, and even if they are registered, they aren’t voting. Purging voters from the registration lists is not going to improve this problem.
Update: Why is Utah’s turnout falling? Three possible reasons.