Rick Bowmer, AP
File - People vote during early voting for the 2016 General Election at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016, in Salt Lake City.
The numbers have been tabulated and Utah was in the bottom tier of states for voter turnout in the 2016 general election. This must change, and it starts with competitive races and combating cynicism that says my vote doesn’t count.
The Beehive State ranked 39th in turnout of eligible voters, with 57.7 percent casting ballots. That was virtually unchanged from the state’s 40th ranking in the 2012 presidential elections, which featured Mitt Romney, a presidential candidate with local ties. Turnout continues to be a source of embarrassment for the state, where people rank high in other measures of community engagement, including volunteerism and participation in civic groups.
Indeed, voter turnout remained low despite Utah being considered a battleground state through at least part of the election, and the emergence of third-party candidate Evan McMullin.
The precise reasons are difficult to pinpoint and solutions remain even more elusive.
The dominance of the Republican Party in Utah leads to many uncontested or non-competitive races. In many ways, this is partially the fault of the Democratic Party, which seems unable to find candidates and platforms that resonate with voters. Demographics also play a role. Utah, for example, is the youngest state in the nation and younger citizens tend not to vote.
But, the Republican Party’s resistance to changes that would open its nominating and primary systems may be contributing to a sense of cynicism, as well. A new report on voter turnout, produced by Nonprofit Vote and the U.S. Elections Project, made some of these observations clear. Minnesota led the nation in turnout, with 74.8 percent. It was a battleground state, four of its eight congressional elections were decided by margins of less than 10 percent and its people can register to vote on Election Day, if they choose.
The report cited those two factors — competitive races and same-day registration — among a list of things that high-turnout states have in common.
Unfortunately, competitive races are rare nationwide. Last year, 74 percent of House seats were either decided by landslide margins or were uncontested. The vast majority of Americans — 147 million, or 65 percent — live in non-battleground states as far as the presidential election is concerned.
In Utah, all four House races were landslides, with District 4’s 12 percent margin between Mia Love and Doug Owens being the closest. Some of Utah’s counties are participating in pilot projects allowing same-day registration, and some conduct elections mostly by mail (also cited in the report as increasing turnout). Utah also allows online registration, further erasing barriers.
None of these seems to make much difference.
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One of the report’s recommendations is to redraw political districts through nonpartisan commissions consisting entirely of citizens. That may be a consideration for Utah, especially if the 2020 Census results in a fifth House district. However, it may be difficult for anyone to redraw the state so that the small Democratic minority has greater representation.
As the report notes, turnout is not a trivial matter. It is “at the core of active citizenship and a healthy democracy,” to quote the executive director of Nonprofit Vote.
It would be inappropriate to urge Utahns to be "bipartisan" in their political philosophy. But it is not inappropriate to urge the state GOP to be more open in its nominating process and to stop fighting reforms. That may not be the total answer to low turnout, but it would be a good step.