In the 1980s, Utah ranked in the top 10 for voter turnout; since 2006, Utah has ranked in the bottom 5. Why?
Earlier today, I wrote about Utah’s declining turnout, and about claims made yesterday in a legislative committee that we could improve Utah’s turnout by removing inactive voters from the registration rolls. In the 1980s, Utah ranked in the top 10 for voter turnout; since 2006, Utah has ranked in the bottom 5. Why?
Why is turnout declining in Utah relative to other states? We’re not talking about a national problem. We’re talking about a Utah-specific problem. That means the answer will be something specific to Utah.
Offhand, I can think of three possibilities. Maybe it’s because our state is young. Maybe it’s because our state is overwhelmingly Republican. Maybe it’s because of our caucus-convention system. Let’s consider each.
First, maybe it’s because Utah has so many young voters. Research has shown that young voters turn out less, and we know that Utah is a very young state. I tested that explanation last year and found that it didn’t work, though. The main problem: Utah has always been a young state, even during its heyday of high turnout 30 years ago.
Second, maybe it’s because general elections have become much less competitive over the years. With only two exceptions (1912 and 1960), Utah voted for every winning presidential candidate (Republican or Democratic) from 1900 through 1972; since 1976, Utah has voted only for Republican presidential candidates. We also see this shift in legislative voting: Democrats haven’t controlled the Utah House since 1975 and the Utah Senate since 1977. Utah became a Republican state in the late 1970s, and it has stayed that way. In fact, Utah has continued to shift to the right since that time, and 28 of Utah’s 29 counties continued to move to the right over the past decade. Clearly general elections are less competitive. If people believe that their votes are less likely to sway the outcome (either way), then they might not bother to show up.
Third, maybe it’s because Utah strengthened its caucus-convention system in the 1990s, making it harder to force a primary and easier to win in convention. If that has resulted in more extreme candidates, then voters might be turned off, as a recent report from the Utah Foundation suggested. If this is correct, it might be amplified by Utah’s uncompetitive general elections.
What can be done?
- If Utah’s declining turnout can be blamed on its youthfulness, then voter registration drives on college campuses might help. But I’m not sure that’s the cause.
- If Utah’s declining turnout can be blamed on Republican dominance, then that’s a hard nut to crack. You can’t legislate a more competitive balance among Utah voters, although creative reforms like the alternative vote or non-partisan runoffs might help a lot by bringing Republican-on-Republican competition into the general election. (A “non-partisan runoff” is what most Utah cities use to elect their mayors.)
- If Utah’s declining turnout can be blamed on extremism bred by a caucus-convention system, then a direct primary (or non-partisan runoffs) would address that. At the least, the parties could make it easier to force a primary.