Many have bewailed Utah’s relatively low voter turnout rate. reports that in the recent election, only 54.8% of Utah’s eligible voters bothered to vote, putting the state in a dismal 48th place nationwide.

But the statistics provided by reveal a little more information. Just four years earlier, 68% of Utah’s eligible voters turned out, putting Utah in 28th place among states, about in the middle of the pack.

When considering the four-decade trend, Utah’s low 2008 voter turnout is an anomaly. It falls so far out of line that, depending on the statistic being modeled, most statisticians would drop the data as an outlier.

By age, income, marital status, and race categories, Utahans tend to vote at rates very similar to those of the national average for each grouping. Utah’s rate is brought down by its high number of young adults ages 18-24, the group with the lowest turnout across the nation.

The chief reasons for the 13.2% drop between 2004 and 2008 seem quite obvious. Many Utah voters weren’t much interested in voting for any of the presidential candidates. Remember, that in the presidential primary, the vast majority voted for Romney. Despite the fact that Gov. Huntsman was lined up behind McCain, many Utahans felt jilted and never warmed to the crusty senator from Arizona.

Moreover, there were no competitive statewide races to bring voters out. The governorship was nailed down tight. The big race of interest in the third congressional district had essentially been decided in the primary. Many municipalities hold their races in the off years, so there was less interest generated from that level as well.

Moreover, had 13.2% or even 30% more voters turned out in Utah, it would not have altered the outcome almost any race. These factors — no validating nationwide or statewide race, few local races, and races whose outcomes were predetermined — reduced the incentive for people to vote last November.

Today’s Utah Policy Daily weighs in on this issue.
“To those who say that partisanship and Utah’s caucus system create voter apathy and low turnout, John E. Gidney, a former candidate for Taylorsville City Council, has this response: “City elections are non-partisan. Candidates are not decided in caucus or convention but in a primary, if needed, and then they go on to the general election. Elected city officials can have great effect on people's lives, yet city elections usually have the lowest voter turnout of any election. Why don't people vote? That is a question that probably has many answers but one is plain apathy!””
I have been thinking about this since only 9% of registered voters in my city voted in the 2007 municipal primary election. We like to lambaste people as too apathetic to do their civic duty. While nagging may shame some people into voting, I do not believe that is a course that will produce better civic involvement.

I have to believe that most of my neighbors are rational people that are interested in doing what is best for themselves and for their community. In my own city I have watched voter turnout vary drastically from election to election. Far more people vote when they feel passionate about a candidate or an issue or when they think that their vote may actually make a difference. The less there is of either factor — passion or competition — the less likely it is that people will vote.

My city also held a special bond election in 2007 to vote for whether to raise everyone’s property tax by a fairly significant amount to pay to cover the lap pool portion of the city’s swimming facility so that it could operate year round. This was a clear issue that impacted voters directly. More voters were informed and motivated. As I noted back then, 25.6% voted in that election. 71% of them voted against the tax increase.

A couple of years earlier, a particular city council member had made a real nuisance of himself to several small businesses in the city. In doing so, he had abused the authority with which the voters had trusted him. Banter about it went back and forth in the newspaper and in council meetings for weeks. Voter turnout in the nonpartisan primary was more than three times the 2007 municipal primary turnout. Out of a field of candidates, this tenured council member came in a distant last place.

In the case of my city’s 2007 municipal primary, a field of 10 candidates was being reduced to a field of six for the final election. Although there was plenty of competition, it was frankly very difficult to judge the relative value of any of the candidates, even after attending meetings. Most voters figured that it would be better to let those that had some inside knowledge about the candidates make the selection, rather than vote blindly.

You can argue that all of the city’s registered voters should have become more informed, but I have to tell you that this is far more difficult than it sounds. I personally knew many of the candidates, read all the campaign literature I could get my hands on, and talked to the candidates personally. All of the information I gathered was still very scanty. I was somewhat upset when I went to the polls that I had gone far out of my way to become informed and still didn’t have enough information upon which to base a solid decision. How can I fault my neighbors for feeling the same way?

Our political parties do much to get out the vote, but they are often their own worst enemies. Examples of corruption and bizarre cartoon-like behavior and stances in both parties are too numerous to count. Why should anyone trust any adherent to our major political parties?

Low voter turnout has many causes and solutions are elusive. While simply getting more people out to vote rarely makes a difference in the outcome of a race, having more people disconnected from the political process makes a difference in the quality of the process and in our governmental institutions. It makes for different types of candidates and for different types of actions once people are in office. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

This is part of the reason for the declining level of confidence Americans have in their political institutions. That confidence decline, in turn, engenders voter apathy. It is a self perpetuating downward cycle. The authors of this article discuss our failing governmental institutions, noting:
“Only less than a quarter of Americans believe that the federal government truly reflects the will of the people. Almost half disagree with the idea that no one can earn a living or live "an American life" without protection and empowerment by the government, while only one-third agree. … It shows fundamentally that public confidence in government remains low and is slipping.”
This only makes people more likely to become politically disengaged. Still, this SL Trib article (although paying tribute to some debunked myths about voter turnout) discusses how voter turnout is tied to a larger nationwide social pattern of general decline in social and civic institutions, which I posted about in September 2007. It is hard to combat a broad social trend.

Difficult as that may be, I think it is essential to teach the importance of civic involvement. I believe that what I wrote in September 2007 is still accurate: “Civic disengagement ultimately leaves a political class in charge of more of our lives than we ever thought possible, and without adequate checks and balances.” That, my friends, is the opposite of what America is supposed to be about.

Some politicos think the situation is hopeless and cannot be successfully turned around in any meaningful way without an actual revolution. Are they right?
Continue reading at the original source →