Purging Utah’s voter rolls will not boost turnout

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)
2010 36.2% 47
2008 56.0% 45
2006 34.3% 45
2004 58.9% 32
2002 37.8% 39
2000 53.8% 34
1998 35.8% 37
1996 50.2% 34
1994 41.5% 29
1992 64.0% 15
1990 40.7% 25
1988 62.0% 7
1986 42.5% 21
1984 63.0% 10
1982 55.1% 6
1980 66.0% 5

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.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate 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 Purging Utah’s voter rolls will not boost turnout

  1. Paul Huff says:

    While I agree that voter turnout is a wild reason for purging the rolls, from looking at the book at the polling station it sure seems that there are an awful lot of people on the Utah County voter registration rolls that registered as college students and don’t live there anymore. I assume similar things might be said for Utah County and the University of Utah, but it seems like they ought to clean their records a little more often than they do.

    Have total numbers turning out (not percentages) also dropped since 1992? Or is it just percentages? Could people moving into the state but not participating in the political process explain part of the decline? Is there anyway I as Joe Q. Public can look at the data and answer some of these questions myself? 🙂

    Thanks for an awesome blog 🙂

    • Adam Brown says:

      I suppose it could be new move-ins who aren’t participating, but I would hope they start participating after a year or two of living here. Otherwise, we’ve still got a problem.

      You can see all the turnout data by following the link I gave to Michael McDonald’s website.

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