Volunteerism Doesn’t Translate into Higher Voter Turnout in Utah

A population that has higher rates of volunteerism and church attendance should be more likely to vote

Last week I wrote a post about Utah’s declining voter turnout rates, and examined whether uncompetitive elections have played a role in the substantial decline in turnout over the last several decades. The idea that a voter’s perception that his or her vote makes a difference is important was derived from Anthony Downs’ calculus of voting. Another part of Downs’ theory states that a person’s sense of gratification or duty may influence whether they vote.

In a report written by the Utah Foundation about voter turnout in Utah, we explored the idea that gratification or duty affect whether a person votes. This is a very difficult and subjective thing to measure, but political science and behavioral research has shown that there is a very close tie between volunteering and political participation.1 Therefore, volunteerism provides a similar though equally subjective measure of gratification, and may also provide a baseline to understand how Utahns view civic duty.

From 2008-2010, Utah ranked as the top state for residents who volunteer and total hours volunteered.2 Utah’s high volunteer ranking is due in part to the fact that 63.8% of Utah’s service hours were connected to a religious location. The prominence of volunteering through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints gives a significant boost to Utah’s volunteer hours; nationally, the average proportion of volunteer hours connected to a religious location was 35%.

Utah’s high rate of volunteering and its connection to a religious institution may indicate that religious affiliation promotes civic engagement and perhaps should encourage political engagement as well. Anecdotally, this has been seen, such as when members of the LDS Church were specifically encouraged to participate in the 2012 caucus meetings, which contributed to the record attendance and a significant increase in the proportion of LDS-affiliated Republican delegates. Or in 2008, when members of the LDS Church were asked to support efforts to pass Proposition 8 in California, which added a new provision to the California Constitution that defined marriage as being between one man and one woman, they turned out in force (both within California and in Utah) to donate time and money.

Despite Utah’s high volunteer rates, and the impressive response that can be seen when members of the LDS Church are asked to become involved in political issues, this does not translate into higher voter turnout. The figure below shows the relationship between volunteerism and voter turnout for all states. The data show a positive relationship, as states with higher rates of volunteerism also have higher voter turnout rates. Minnesota tops the list for voting rates and is also quite high in volunteerism. Hawaii, on the other hand, is at the bottom for voting and near bottom for volunteering. However, Utah’s very high level of volunteerism does not translate to high voter turnout, making it a major outlier.3

The relationship between voluntarism and turnout – Utah as an outlier

This is especially interesting because it is often said, albeit very anecdotally, that Utahns are very civically engaged and patriotic. Senator Mike Lee even recently said that “Mormons do have an added dose of a belief in American exceptionalism.” However, the high rates of volunteerism and impressive responses to calls for political action have done little to counteract Utah’s declining voter turnout rates, despite the fact that research has shown that church attendance is closely linked to higher rates of voter turnout.  There seems to be something else at work in this equation, especially since a population that has higher rates of volunteerism and church attendance should be more likely to vote.  Answers to why Utah’s voter turnout has been declining are more plausibly found in its uncompetitive races, or comparatively restrictive voting system.

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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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