On this Independence Day weekend, we honor those who broke from the English monarchy to establish a government “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Now if we could just get the governed to consent.
Salt Lake County held a primary election last month, and not even 10 percent of registered voters participated. That turnout disappointed Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, but she acknowledges the primary turnout has been below 7 percent before.
Low turnout is not unique to Utah, particularly in primary elections. But even in the big years we stay home. With favorite son Mitt Romney heading the ballot in 2012, Utah still was stuck in the bottom third of states for voter turnout at around 55 percent of registered voters.
Much can be blamed on age. We’re the youngest state, and older people vote more than young people, with the heaviest turnout coming from people 60 to 70 years old. (Interestingly, that phenomenon has existed for decades, meaning many of those 60-year-old voters were 25-year-old non-voters.)
How do we up our numbers? The solution is as old as the founding fathers: the U.S. mail.
More than 30 states offer voting by mail now, and the trend has been particularly heavy in the western United States, a consequence of greater distances to polling places. Virtually all voting in Washington and Oregon is by mail now.
Utah already has voting by mail, but only for those who request it. There are 435,000 registered voters in the county, and Swensen reports that she sent out 90,000 mail-in ballots. And 32 percent of those ballots were returned, meaning that two-thirds of the county’s 42,354 voters came via those 90,000 mailed ballots.
In other words, it’s easier to get people to vote by sending them ballots than it is to set up voting booths in their neighborhoods. In fact, only one county in Washington even has polling places anymore, and Washington’s turnout rate in 2012 was almost 10 percentage points higher than Utah’s.
The shift is already having a profound effect on politics. Election day is not so much the day of voting as it is the last day of voting. The last-minute campaign tricks are dulled, and voters have more time to study the complicated questions.
It’s time to start mailing everyone a ballot. It’s a truth you can hold to be self-evident.