Do uncompetitive elections hurt turnout in Utah?

As more of these races became uncontested or were won by very large margins of victory, the trend in voter turnout was falling.

Utah historically has had a high voter turnout rate. Throughout the first half of last century, it was well above the national average. However, it has declined substantially over the past several decades, and is now not only well below the national average, but in the 2010 mid-term election was one of the lowest in the country.1 Which begs the question, what has caused this decline in turnout?

One explanation is that as the Republican majority in Utah has become stronger, and political races have become less competitive, voters may feel that their votes don’t matter and are less likely to turn out on Election Day. The idea that a voter’s perception that his or her vote makes a difference is important to participation harkens back to Anthony Downs’ calculus of voting, and may provide important insight to Utah’s declining voter turnout.

Makeup of Utah State Legislature by Party 1935-2012

Since 1979, Republicans have held a strong majority in the Utah State Legislature. This majority peaked in 1985 at 81%, and has never fallen below 60%. These super-majorities coincide with the decades in which Utah’s voter turnout has been declining. This has gone in tandem with an increase in uncompetitive races in Utah. Utah’s voter turnout was high in the 1970s, when more political races seemed competitive. As more of these races became uncontested or were won by very large margins of victory, the trend in voter turnout was falling. The level of uncompetitive races reached a peak in 1996, which also coincided with the largest drop in voter turnout during this period. Since then, voter turnout has leveled, while the number of uncompetitive races is not following a discernible trend.

Margin of Victory and Voter Turnout

There are of course other factors that can play into voter turnout, such as costs to vote as well as feelings of gratification or duty people get out of voting. Utah Foundation addresses some of these in a recent report on partisan politics and voter participation, and I will explore them in further detail in follow-up blog posts as well. However, the relationship between uncompetitive races and super-majorities in the legislature and declining voter turnout rates seems to be one of great importance.

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About Morgan Lyon Cotti

Morgan Lyon Cotti is the Research Director at the Utah Foundation. She holds a PhD in political science from George Washington University.
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