Why is Utah’s turnout falling?

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.

Possibly related posts:

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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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5 Responses to Why is Utah’s turnout falling?

  1. Florien Wineriter says:

    Browns’ analysis makes sense. Returning to the previous primary election system would be a good start for returning ‘power to the people’. Power corrupts and the extremists certainly have that power under the current Utah caucus system.

  2. Todd Taylor says:

    The Utah Foundation report cites a desire for increasing voter turnout and more moderate candidates as the reasons for reducing the influence of party delegates.

    The problem is that the proposed solution of more primary elections will not accomplish either goal. Nothing in the Foundation’s report refutes this and, in fact, it provides information to the contrary.

    The Foundation debunks the voter turnout issue in their own research, where they state that the primary-system with the Utah Direct Primary Law of 1937 “lasted only one decade, during which the state had very low voter turnout.” Indeed, they showed that Utah had its highest levels of participation that were above national norms under the caucus/convention system from 1960 to 1996.

    As for the second issue of more moderate candidates, there is plenty of academic research (none of which is cited by the Utah Foundation) to show that primary elections do not have that effect. Will it give us more moderate candidates? Forty-three states already have direct primaries. It gives us the vast majority of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Is that our model of moderation and decorum?

    The fact is that when candidates compete in a direct primary they have to get more money and media attention to campaign to a larger group. This leads them to more strident positions as they try to distinguish themselves and get media attention. It may make them more beholden to funders. This also leads to more need for candidates to “bring home the bacon” with special pork-barrel spending and less general appropriation ballooning the budget like we have seen at the federal level.

    Back to the turnout issue.

    Contrary to studies showing a decline in turnout by voting-age population, voter turnout in the United States has not declined since 1972 when calculated for those eligible to vote. In 1972, non-citizens and ineligible felons constituted about 2% of the voting-age population. By 2004, ineligible voters constituted nearly 10% and are not evenly distributed across the country with 20% of California’s voting-age population ineligible. An examination of the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey shows that turnout is low but not declining among the youth, when the high youth turnout of 1972 (the first year 18–20 year olds were eligible to vote in most states) is removed from the trend. (Michael McDonald and Samuel Popkin, American Political Science Review, 2001)

    There is a decline of those in Utah eligible to vote. We have a higher immigration population, Utah changed the law regarding felons, and we still have the youngest state in the nation with the highest proportion underage.

    Registration is more difficult and not timely. NVRA (aka “Motor Voter”) has not offset declines created by changes in other Utah laws like the imposition of ID requirements, the thirty day by mail registration deadline, the elimination of neighborhood registrars, consolidation of precincts requiring fewer poll-workers as a percentage of the population, and candidate and Party registration drives have declined as fewer people volunteer and timelines for registration have changed outside the normal canvassing period.

    Turnout has decreased as civic engagement has decreased. Voluntary participation in political parties and the attendance of observers at town meetings is down. The decline in voting has also accompanied a general decline in civic participation, such as church attendance, membership in professional, fraternal, and student societies, youth groups, and parent-teacher associations. Alienation following governmental scandal and incapacity to address issues important to voters causes a decrease in turnout. This is the “bowling alone” problem.

    It is rare for factors such as competitiveness, weather, and time of year to cause an increase or decrease in turnout of more than five percentage points. (G. Bingham Powell, Voter Turnout in Thirty Democracies, Electoral Participation)

    Four Cultural Attitudes with a Strong Positive Effect: 1) trust in government; 2) degree of partisanship among the population; 3) interest in politics; and, 4) belief in the efficacy of voting.

    Partisanship is an important impetus to turnout, with the highly partisan more likely to vote. (This is a warning to changing the caucus/convention system which further decreases partisan activity.)

    Lower turnout is experienced where parties appear to have little real difference, voters perceive the process as unfair, or the outcome is determined by corruption and fraud.

    Voter fatigue can lower turnout if there are many elections in close succession. (Utah had five higher profile elections between October 2007 and November 2008.)

    The two-step process of registration prior to voting clearly decreases voter turnout. States with no, or easier, registration requirements have larger turnouts. No-excuse absentee voting, vote-by-mail, an increased number of polling locations, accessible voting locations (parking / handicapped), early vote, decreased wait times, and requiring companies to give workers some time off on voting days have shown increases in turnout. (Richard Niemi and Herbert Weisberg, Controversies in Voting Behavior)

    So, what can Utah do to increase voter turnout?

    There are studies that show if you really want to increase turnout significantly, shame is a key motivator. Publishing the names of those who do not participate will increase turnout dramatically. I don’t suspect anyone really wants to do this, so, here are some other good alternatives:

    1. Same-day voter registration

    2. Legislation that allows better timing for voter registration drives (the state has recently instituted online registration that will help here, but does not provide a preferred timeline for what is called “agency” registration – “agency” is where a third person (e.g. like a candidate, political party volunteer, or the League of Women Voters) is involved in the registration between the voter and the registrar.)

    3. Increased vote-by-mail (Salt Lake County has led the way on this, other counties are expected to follow suit)

    4. Perceived fairness of electoral system:
    a. State Election Commission (not overseen by one party)
    b. Redistricting Commission (not overseen by one party)
    c. Ballot order random or based on candidate filing date/time (we’ll get a chance to see this for the first time this coming cycle in Utah)
    d. Elimination of the winner-take-all electoral college system (there are moves by the National Popular Vote to do this, but it would not be my preferred method)

    5. Increased levels of partisanship are highly correlated to increased participation.
    a. Political parties need to be strengthened in a manner that encourages participation.
    b. The entertainment value of local politics needs to be heightened leading to an increased culture of political giving and participation.
    c. Increased direct subsidies (like check-off) need to be encouraged.
    d. Longer candidate filing period.

    6. Increased focus by news media on local politics with message that every “good” member of the community is going to participate instead of constant message that an individual vote does not matter and that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

    • Adam Brown says:

      I see that you’ve posted the same comment that was posted here back in December. It seems to be a response to the Utah Foundation report more than to me. Still, I’ll make a couple points.

      “Indeed, they showed that Utah had its highest levels of participation that were above national norms under the caucus/convention system from 1960 to 1996.” It was roughly 1996 when both Utah parties made it much easier to clinch the nomination in convention (without a primary). You’re trying to say that our nominating system doesn’t hurt turnout in Utah, but this statement goes the opposite direction. To be sure, I’m not sure I completely buy the Utah Foundation report’s claim that the nomination system hurts turnout. But I don’t see your statement here as going the other way.

      “Contrary to studies showing a decline in turnout by voting-age population, voter turnout in the United States has not declined since 1972 when calculated for those eligible to vote.” Non sequitur. There hasn’t been a nationwide decline, that’s true. But there has definitely been a Utah decline. No question about it. When I documented this decline in my related post yesterday, I was relying on the same “eligible voter” data that you discuss. You cite Popkin and McDonald’s classic analysis; I’m was using McDonald’s data yesterday when I showed that Utah’s turnout has fallen behind in a big way.

      As for the famous “bowling alone” hypothesis, it’s got serious flaws, especially in Utah, where social capitol runs off the charts. Look up “Social Capitol and Politics” (1998, Jackman and Miller) for a classic critique of the social capitol literature.

      The “shame” stuff is fascinating. For those unfamiliar with this, I wrote about it once before. One study tested whether publishing the names of voters and non-voters in the newspaper would boost turnout. (It did.)

  3. Todd Taylor says:

    Thanks, Adam.

    I re-posted some of this because there are several pieces of legislation this session that might address these issues: same-day registration, tax check-off, vote by mail, National Popular Vote, etc.

    I also believe that the nomination process reforms that the Utah Foundation report advocates may be useful, but have no belief that they will impact turnout or moderation.

    So of the three hypotheses in the post, I agree with your assessment of the first two. The third is more problematic.

    I would posit a fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh explanation on decreased participation: One is minor but that the eligible population in Utah has changed with immigration and denial for those incarcerated; the other is based on the McDonald data showing a significant decrease in the registration levels (there were legislative changes in registration timing in Utah relative to the election in the 1990s and this growing gap between registration and voting is particularly damaging to young or first time voters); another is that media ownership in the time period changed from local to national and coverage of local people has changed dramatically (people don’t vote for candidates they don’t know, and instead rely more on partisan cues — I call it the death of the local celebrity); and, finally, that it is harder than ever for parties to raise funds to promote democracy in part due to stricter regulation and in part due to the changing business landscape wherein decision-makers no longer reside in Utah.

    My guess is that the two major factors are the changes in registration and the advent of the local news media declaring that races are not competitive. (I also think there may have been a tipping point where redistricting proved too efficient and cut Democratic strongholds up so much that apathy set in and now communities have changed their voting patterns: southern Utah County and the old Geneva Steel districts, Sanpete County, Tooele, Ogden, Park City have all gone under the knife in dramatic ways to limit their impact. Many of these communities have capitulated and now elect Republicans where once they traditionally elected Democrats. Carbon/Emery/Grand/San Juan may soon follow.)

    Now, a question. Utah is one of only 15 states with straight ticket voting for 2012. Does this ballot feature affect outcomes in Utah elections? Lots of anecdotes, and some good national studies that may or may not be applicable to Utah, but no good data on how it works in Utah.

    • Adam Brown says:

      I think those comments are on target. And Carbon, Grand, Emery, and San Juan may have already taken the plunge, more so than folks think. If memory serves, Grand County was the only one of those four to support Obama, for example.

      I haven’t seen a study of the straight ticket option, although I can’t say I’ve looked. That could be a fruitful research project. I doubt it affects top-level races, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t have an effect in downballot races.

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