Mitt or not, Utah voter turnout was paltry
Even in a year with Mitt Romney on the ballot, Utah citizens turned out to vote in lackluster numbers that will likely put the state among the lowest voter turnout in the nation.
Election officials tout gaudy voter participation figures, over 80 percent statewide, the highest since 1992.
But those numbers only look at active registered voters and don't include more than half a million Utahns who are eligible to vote, but have not registered nearly 30 percent of the eligible population.
All told, 57 percent of eligible Utahns cast ballots, basically flat compared with 2008 and down from 2004, despite the ballyhooed enthusiasm over having an adopted favorite son at the top of the ticket.
"Having Romney on the ticket wasn't the silver bullet to increasing Utah's voter participation. There are some other things at play," said Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, who has been pushing for several years to drop barriers to voting.
"I found that really surprising in some ways, but not too surprising, because from what we'd been hearing, [the candidates] weren't the reasons people hadn't been voting," she said. "If nothing else, it shows there are other things we need to be working on."
Utah's poor voter participation rates have alarmed leaders for years. In the mid-1970s through 1992, election turnout was in the mid-60s, well above the national average. But since then, it has dipped to the low-to-mid-50s.
"We haven't fared that well over the past couple of decades," said Mark Thomas, the state elections director. "When you compare it to the national average, we haven't been absolutely terrible, but we've certainly been on the low end."
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman appointed the Governors Commission on Strengthening Democracy to study ways to increase voter involvement.
The commission recommended making it easier to register to vote, making voter registration automatic when getting a driver license or filling out a tax form, making the registration portable and making it easier for military personnel to register and request absentee ballots.
A report by the Utah Foundation in June looked at Utah's dwindling voting rates and identified some potential causes.
The report cited a lack of competitive elections that led voters to believe their votes don't matter.
And Utah's voting rules, more stringent than neighboring states, and its unique system of picking candidates through caucuses and conventions, also could drive down turnout.
"Cumulatively, you look at all those different components, and I think they add to people's assumption that it's kind of a 'Why bother?' factor for a lot of folks," Chavez-Houck said. "Even for people of the majority [Republican] party, I think it's: 'Why bother because we know we're going to win.'"
Chavez-Houck, a member of the former governor's commission, has argued that letting voters essentially register on Election Day as Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and several other states currently permit would lower a barrier and make it easier for Utahns to vote.
In 2010, Chavez-Houck sponsored legislation making voter registration more portable and requiring county clerks to count provisional ballots by voters whose registration may not have been updated.
One interesting bright spot was in Duchesne County, which saw its lackluster turnout from 2008 jump significantly in its first year experimenting with a vote-by-mail-only election.
In 2008, about 5,744 people voted in the presidential election. This year 6,409 Duchesne residents cast ballots in the presidential race.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, sponsored a bill earlier this year allowing counties to conduct elections with mail-in ballots, similar to the system that has been in place since 1998 in Oregon which had a 68 percent turnout rate in 2008.
His bill directed the Lieutenant Governor's Office to study what would be needed to go to a statewide vote-by-mail system, which he acknowledges is complicated, but Eliason believes would be beneficial.
"Making it easier is, I think, the key," he said. "Beside the vote-by-mail, I really don't have any other ideas on how to increase turnout, because unfortunately there's only so much you can do to help people do their civic duty."
Utah's ebbing voter turnout
The percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots in each presidential election since 1980:
1980 • 66.6 percent
1984 • 64.3 percent
1988 • 63.4 percent
1992 • 67.5 percent
1996 • 52.1 percent
2000 • 54.8 percent
2004: 59.8 percent
2008 • 57.1 percent
2012 • 57.09 percent*
*Eligible Voting-age Population: 1,801,560
Total Ballots Cast: 1,028,635 (based on county canvasses, to be certified by state on Monday)
The picture looks rosier when turnout is calculated based on registered voters
Active Registered Voters: 1,285,386
Percent of Active Registered Voters: 80 percent
Source: George Mason University United States Elections Project, Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office
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