“And then depression set in:” Why don’t Utahns turn out to vote?

When we asked respondents to the recent UVP why they believed individuals did not turn out to vote, the overwhelming reason related to one-party dominance.

Professors Quin Monson and Michael Barber contributed to this post.

In the movie “Stripes,” Bill Murray plays a down on his luck cab driver named John Winger. When his girlfriend walks out on him, he utters the phrase, “and then depression set in.”

American democracy seems to be getting to that point. Turnout by some estimates was the worst in seven decades.  Utah was no exception to the depressing news. Our colleague, Adam Brown, summarized the turnout in Utah in a recent Utah Data Points post.

Describing the trend does not necessarily explain it. We want to know what factors contribute to the decline in turnout. Some have looked for institutional explanations such as voter identification laws. However, Utah’s turnout decline began before the adoption of stricter voter id laws. Furthermore, Utah has liberalized absentee and vote-by-mail options, features that should help arrest the decline in turnout. Consequently, institutional explanations do not seem to provide convincing answers.

We think the explanation resides in a rather toxic mix of lack of competitiveness and citizen commitment. It is no secret that Utah is a one-party state. The lack of competitiveness gives individuals few incentives to turnout when the results appear foreordained. Voters think this perception matters. When we asked respondents to the recent UVP why they believed individuals did not turn out to vote, the overwhelming reason related to one-party dominance. The question was “In this last election in Utah, only about 30% of people who are eligible to vote actually voted. In your view, what is the most important reason why voter turnout in Utah is so low?”

Why Not Vote?The figure shows that most individuals believed that the lack of competitiveness resulted in a reduced desire to vote. None of the other choices come even close to this one single reason for not voting. Apathy, too busy, or an inability to navigate the difficulties of registering and getting out to the polls all lag far behind as explanations offered up by habitual voters as reasons for not voting.  Now the UVP is mostly made up of voters, so we are essentially asking voters why they think nonvoters do not vote, but the distribution of answers is certainly instructive.

The depressing effect of lack of competitiveness does not affect everybody equally. We expect that some individuals will be better equipped to shrug off its effects than others. Some individuals will see voting as a “duty.” Duty has often been a predictor of turnout, but it does not receive the same attention as other psychological orientations or as much attention as preference about who wins the election.  However, as Blais and Achen point out, both duty and preference matter, a lot.

The question for Utah is whether or not there is a “duty” gap. Returning to the November post-election UVP, we asked voters whether or not they saw voting “mainly as a duty or a choice.” We then followed up asking how strongly they saw that selection.

The dots in the figure below indicate that some individuals are much more likely to believe that voting is more strongly a duty than others. The lines represent confidence intervals—where the lines overlap, we cannot be certain that the differences are statistically different. What we see however is that those who have a favorable impression of the Tea Party and conservatives view voting more strongly as a duty.

Intriguingly, individuals who express religious preferences are more likely to express a sense of duty when it comes to voting than those without a religion, although the small number of individuals without a religion in the sample means that the confidence intervals are large.

Duty Blog FigureWhen we put all of these factors into a multivariate model (a logistic regression equation that predicts choosing the category of “strongly duty.”), we see that having a favorable impression of the Tea Party and being a conservative positively predict whether a person sees voting as a duty. After controlling for these factors, being Republican or having no religious preference negatively predict whether a person sees voting as a duty (p < .1).

These results only hint at what we think may ail turnout in Utah, but they are worth further exploration.  As Achen and Blais state, “some people construe voting in ethical terms, and that those who do so are more likely to vote and also less inclined to pay attention to non-ethical considerations.” What “non-ethical considerations” mean is the lack of competitiveness and the resulting lack of choices that voters routinely face in Utah.  And the individuals who need to struggle the most with these “non-ethical considerations” to improve Utah’s poor turnout record are probably those who are least likely to hear from some source they consider authoritative that it is their “duty” to vote.

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