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Holyoak: Why don't Utahns vote?

Published August 24, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The legend of just why your vote counts — the stuff of chain letters, email forwards, and social media shares — is a surprisingly durable one. It goes more or less like this:

Did you know that the German language failed to be the official language of the United States by only one vote? In 1795, Congress voted 42 to 41 against establishing German as the official language of the United States. So, if you didn't believe it before, you certainly should now: Every vote counts.

This resilient argument for why your vote counts is false. But the principle behind it is certainly becoming truer. Many of this year's municipal primary elections were decided by just a handful of votes. And I'm not talking about corporations and big money. I'm talking about paltry voter turnout numbers. Despite universal suffrage, municipal elections are still being decided by an undemocratic few.

Utah's recent municipal primary elections should be concerning to us all. Here is a smattering of voter turnout rates:

Cedar City — 19 percent

Orem — 17 percent

Salt Lake County — 15 percent

Provo — 9 percent

Sounds bad, right? But it is actually much worse. All these numbers calculate voter turnout as a percentage of registered voters, not eligible voters.

With only 70 percent of eligible voters in Utah actually being registered voters (the number is closer to 50 percent in Salt Lake County), it's easy to see that we have something of a democratic crisis on our hands.

Why is voter turnout so low in Utah? The truth is, we don't know. I am unaware of any definitive, large-scale study to determine why or why not Utahns choose to vote.

A solution won't be possible until we provide some answers to that question. For example, do we have a sociological issue on our hands, like voter apathy, or a political one, like closed primaries? Is it some combination of the two?

Until we ask the question, opening or closing caucuses, registering more voters, or electing more members of the minority party — all of which are political solutions — may just be shots in the dark when it comes to increasing voter participation.

A sociological problem would require cultural and social changes — longer early-voting periods and same-day voter registration — that are quite distinct from political ones. But there's no way of knowing what solutions are required until some sort of large-scale research is undertaken to determine why voters are not going to the polls.

Some might argue that a focus on municipal elections is unnecessarily alarmist, and that state and federal elections that feature higher voter participation rates are a better metric for determining citizen engagement.

But the big issues that drive state and federal voter turnout, like gay marriage and abortion, have always outweighed their actual significance. They're the bogeymen of government power, not actual governance, and their value in municipal elections is even more negligible.

It is our cities and counties where the most important decisions about governance are made.

City government operates in the realm of possibility: community centers, schools, parks, police and fire, property taxes, and water usage.

These are the government structures that citizens are most likely to encounter in their daily lives. They are the structures that are controlled by city councils and mayors.

Yet, they are also the structures that Utahns are least likely to vote for.

Isaac Holyoak is the communications director for the Alliance for a Better UTAH.