No, Utah will not have 80% turnout

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.

Important note (November 20, 2012). The turnout numbers below rely on data from Michael McDonald. He has updated his VEP numbers for Utah, so the turnout percentages I give below (and the denominator I give for 2012) would look somewhat different if I were to write this post with his updated data. I won’t go back and change the numbers in this post, but I will use McDonald’s updated numbers in future posts. If you conduct your own analysis, you should download the raw data from his website (linked below) rather than taking the numbers from this post. The broader points in this post about how to calculate turnout remain valid.

Newspapers this morning reported optimistic predictions from Utah’s election officials: “Based on early voting, I think we will be at least at 74 percent, and perhaps up to 80 percent” turnout among active registered voters. (Edited for clarity at 11:54am.)

There’s a major caveat there. Utah’s election administrators measure turnout in an unorthodox way that inflates the numbers. They report turnout as a percentage of registered voters. Meanwhile, reputable analysts measure turnout as a percentage of eligible voters.

How it changes the percentages

Take a look at some numbers. Utah’s voting age population (VAP) is the number of residents 18 years of age or older. Utah’s voting eligible population (VEP) removes institutionalized populations (e.g. felons) and other ineligible groups. VEP is the appropriate denominator when calculating turnout (read why). Utah’s estimated VAP and VEP reported below comes from Michael McDonald, the reigning expert on voter turnout in the United States.

Voting age population (VAP) in Utah 1,980,790
Voting eligible population (VEP) in Utah 1,835,666
Registered voters in Utah (as of June 2012) 1,287,892

Imagine how different these statistics will look if Utahns cast 1,000,000 ballots for president this year. The state elections office would report turnout of 77.6%. As a percentage of the voting eligible population, however, turnout would be only 54.5%. That’s a huge difference–23.1 percentage points.

There are two main reasons to report turnout as a percentage of VEP rather than as a percentage of registered voters.

Reason #1: It tells us what we’re actually interested in

In the United States, voting is a two-step process. First, you must register. Then, you must vote. The media report turnout statistics because people are curious to know how broadly American citizens have engaged the election. We all chuckle (or sigh) when we read that an odd-year municipal election received less than 10% turnout. But we all expect that a presidential election should engage the electorate and push turnout upward.

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.

Reason #2: It makes historical comparisons more accurate

Reporting turnout as a percentage of registered voters can also produce misleading trends. In 2010, Utah’s election officials claimed that turnout was the best for a midterm election in Utah in 16 years. With a little research, however, one learns the reason for this “improvement”: Fewer Utahns were registered to vote in 2010 than in previous years, inflating the turnout percentage when measured as a percentage of registered voters. When measured correctly (as a percentage of VEP), Utah’s turnout in 2010 was actually worse than every midterm election since 1994 except (barely) 2006.

Historical turnout data for Utah

For the record, here are the historical turnout percentages for Utah as a percentage of VEP. I include presidential years only. Data from Michael McDonald.

Year Utah’s VEP Votes cast for president Turnout as % of VEP
2012 1,835,666 We’ll see We’ll see
2008 1,746,298 952,370 54.5%
2004 1,574,463 927,844 58.9%
2000 1,431,668 770,754 53.8%
1996 1,326,919 665,629 50.2%
1992 1,162,363 743,999 64.0%
1988 1,043,170 647,008 62.0%
1984 998,820 629,656 63.0%
1980 915,484 604,222 66.0%

Punchline

It’s likely that tomorrow’s news will include coverage about the turnout rates in Utah. My plea to reporters: Calculate it correctly. You mislead the public if you go on the air with turnout percentages calculated as a percentage of registered voters. Get the number of ballots cast for president, and divide it by the voting eligible population (1,835,666).

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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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3 Responses to No, Utah will not have 80% turnout

  1. Fred says:

    Take a look at the active voter number. Slco has active voters on the election results not total registered voters. We will likely get 80% of active voters

    • Adam Brown says:

      I should have clarified in the post. Yes, the registration records differentiate between active registrations and various other categories. That compounds the problem further, in fact, by further restricting the denominator.

  2. Jack says:

    Adam, what is the biggest problem among the nation as a whole? Why is the USA’s voter turn out so low?

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