Voter turnout in Utah just got worse

In 2014, Utah was one of only 4 states with turnout below 29%.

This post is based on preliminary turnout figures from the various states. These findings may need to be revised as provisional and absentee ballots are counted nationwide.

Nationally, last week’s elections witnessed the lowest midterm election turnout in seven decades. As bad as things were nationwide, though, they were even worse in Utah.

Though Utah’s turnout numbers may rise modestly as the last few absentee ballots are counted, it appears that Utah just experienced one of its worst showings in decades for an even-year election. More and more, it seems that Utahns are giving up on voting.

So far, 494,289 ballots were cast in Utah’s only statewide race, the attorney general election. Adding up all the ballots cast in Utah’s four Congressional races produces a similar figure (496,308 ballots). If we suppose that the remaining absentee ballots will bring the total figure up to 550,000, that would give Utah a 28.8% turnout rate for 2014.

How I calculate turnout

Let’s be clear about the math. Utah’s election administrators generally report turnout as a percentage of “active” registered voters. Because Utah’s voter roll lists 1,252,669 “active” registered voters, their method would report 550,000 ballots as 44% turnout. Not bad, right? A 44% rate certainly sounds better than 29%. For election administrators interested in reaching already-registered voters, this method of calculating turnout may make sense. But if we want to use turnout as an indicator of democratic health, we need another measure.

So how am I arriving at a 29% turnout figure? Political scientists calculate turnout as the percentage of eligible voters in a state. We routinely abbreviate “voter-eligible population” as VEP. In most states, “eligible” means you are at least 18, a citizen, and not currently incarcerated. The gold-standard 50-state data series on VEP turnout is maintained by Michael P. McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida. I use his data throughout this post, including his estimates of 2014 turnout rates, which may change modestly in coming weeks as outstanding absentee ballots are counted nationwide.

Just how bad was Utah’s turnout in 2014?

Take a look at the figure below. For each even-numbered election year, the large red dot shows Utah’s VEP turnout rate. The small blue dots show turnout in the other states. In every state, the turnout rate goes up in presidential years and down in midterm years; this isn’t surprising. What is remarkable, though, is Utah’s decline relative to other states. During the 1980s, Utah routinely had above-average turnout. Since the late 1990s, Utah has routinely had below-average turnout. In 2014, Utah was one of only 4 states with turnout below 29%. (The others were Indiana, New York, and Texas.)

Turnout, 1980-2014 - Utah (red) vs other states (blue)

Turnout, 1980-2014 – Utah (red) vs other states (blue)

This next figure makes Utah’s decline even more apparent. For each even-numbered year, this chart depicts the difference between Utah’s turnout rate and the nation’s average turnout rate. From 1980 through 1992, the difference was positive, meaning that Utah’s turnout rate was higher than the national average. In 1994, Utah sat a mere 0.4 percentage points above the national average. Since 1996, Utah’s turnout rate has consistently been below the national average.

Turnout 1980-2014 - Utah vs the national average

Turnout 1980-2014 – Utah vs the national average

Utah’s turnout improved somewhat in 2012, with Utah only 2.8 percentage points behind the national average. Perhaps Romney’s local popularity boosted turnout. But Utahns made up for their improved showing in 2012 by staying home in 2014. In 2014, Utah’s turnout rate was around 7.5 percentage points below the nation’s average. Though this figure will shift somewhat when final vote counts come out, it is unlikely to move by more than a trivial amount.

Why is Utah’s turnout falling?

Past posts have considered three possible explanations for Utah’s declining voter turnout, two of which seem to be supported by the evidence.

First, Utah witnessed genuine partisan competitiveness from the 1930s through the 1970s. During this time, elections routinely swung control of the Utah Legislature or of the governor’s mansion. And during this time, voter turnout was high. The Republican lock on Utah dates to the early 1980s and has strengthened in recent years. If voters feel that elections are foregone, they may feel less motivated to register and to vote. Such an attitude is unfortunate; even if the partisan races are foregone (which is not always true), there are ballot initiatives and non-partisan races to consider. See this post from 2012 for more analysis of whether uncompetitive elections hurt Utah’s turnout.

Second, Utah had no marquee race at the top of the ballot this year. Over the past half-century, many states have migrated toward holding their gubernatorial elections in midterm years to get them out of the shadow of presidential politics. Last week, 36 states had gubernatorial races.1 In addition, 34 states had US Senate races. Utah was one of only five states with neither marquee race on the ballot this year. (The others were Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, and Washington.) One way for Utah to boost midterm-year turnout would be to move gubernatorial elections to midterm years. See this post from 2010 for details. In a nutshell, we could expect this reform to provide a permanent 6.7% boost to midterm-year turnout.

Third, some have suggested that Utah’s turnout is low because it has so many young people, and young people are less likely to turn out. Though it’s true that Utah has a younger than average population, see this post from 2010 to see why we can’t blame young people for Utah’s declining turnout.

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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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4 Responses to Voter turnout in Utah just got worse

  1. Richard Watson says:

    Out of your three reasons for low voter turnout in Utah, your number one answer is the most accurate. Straight party and partisan voting is the main reason most Utahns don’t vote. Those who do vote, very few know who they are voting for. But they feel compelled in voting for the “R”. Over the years, I have heard countless people claim that the elections are over in June. A possible column for you should be on why voter margins in most Utah counties never change over the years. I know in Davis County, the voter margins between Republicans and Democrats are around 65% to 30%. For the past 20 years, that margin has only changed by a few points. In other words, for every partisan election, only the name changes on the ballot and the results are the same.
    Having been a candidate in the past, the real problem seems to be the “national platform” of each party. Voters would rather vote for the party rather than the person. Even though I have tried to explain to people that platforms do not fix bridges and roads, they are convinced that party is more important. Another article for you could be why Utahns claim to be independent voters when they really are not. In fact, there was a Weber State survey years ago that claims only 10% of so called “independent” voters really are independent. These voters vote for the “R”.
    Unfortunately, I am turning into one of those apathetic voters. After being involved in politics for the past 15 years, I am fed up. Apathetic voters will increase until something is done.

  2. Rod Mann says:

    I find it odd that 9-12 months ago poor voter turnout was consistently blamed on the caucus system. Now it doesn’t even make the top 3 reasons. Has the world changed that much in the last year or was there an agenda then that doesn’t exist now?

    • Adam Brown says:

      I heard that talking point too, on occasion, during the Count My Vote debate. Personally, I’ve never seen the connection between our nominating system and general election turnout. The caucus system has its strengths and weaknesses, but a relationship with general election turnout is probably not among them. Obviously voter participation will increase in the nomination stage if we have primaries rather than conventions, but I’ve never seen the connection between nominating systems and general election turnout.

      But even if there was a connection, it would be irrelevant to my conclusion in this post. I was looking for reasons that could explain Utah’s decline compared to the national average over the past few decades. The caucus-convention system has been a constant for decades, so it would be unable to explain a decline over this period. But the first two factors I highlight can explain a decline.

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