Utah plunged from having the highest turnout of female voters in the country in 1992 — known nationally as the Year of the Woman — to the nation’s lowest 14 years later. But after the past two elections, the number of women voting in the state may be going up again, according to research released last week.

Last year, Utah women voted at a far higher rate, at 60.5%, than they had in any midterm election since 2006, when they had the smallest voting percentage among all the states and Washington, D.C., at 36.8%, according to an updated report on voting and civic engagement from the Utah Women and Leadership Project.

This increase moved Utah up to 11th in the national rankings, the report shows. Utah had been “near the bottom” since 2006 before rising to 35th in 2016, when 63% of eligible women voters participated.

Across the country, overall female voter turnout increased 12% in the 2018 election, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Also, “a record number of women were elected to the House of Representatives,” the bureau said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The reason for the voting spike among women in Utah, according to the report, is “likely due to a closely contested U.S. House race and several high-profile ballot initiatives.”

Last year, two-term Republican Rep. Mia Love lost to Ben McAdams in a “toss-up” race for Utah’s 4th Congressional District. Voters also considered medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion, gas taxes to generate school funding, and voting redistricting.

Why Utah went from the state with the highest female voter turnout in 1992, at 76%, to the lowest is less clear but could be from a combination of factors, according to political scientists in the state.

“Utah’s turnout for men follows a generally similar pattern, so some of the forces leading to low Utah turnout in 2006 but high turnout in 1992 are probably common across the sexes,” said Damon Cann, associate professor of political science at Utah State University.

Utah has “tended to have fewer competitive elections,” with Republicans generally winning the state’s gubernatorial and congressional spots, said Matthew Burbank, political science professor at the University of Utah. This can lead to people feeling like they don’t need to participate as much, he said.

The 1992 election, when Utah had the highest turnout for women, was known as the Year of the Woman, as a record number of women ran for political office nationally “in the wake of the controversial Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, who had been accused of sexual harassment,” Cann said.

Women competed in high-profile elections in Utah that year, said Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director at the Hinckley Institute of Politics. Jan Graham was elected as the state’s attorney general, while Karen Shepherd ran against then-Enid Greene Waldholtz for a seat in the U.S. House.

“The candidacies of these women undoubtedly had an effect on the level of voter turnout among women in Utah that year,” Cann said.

In years since then, Joanne Slotnik, of Salt Lake City, has heard people say, “My vote doesn’t count in Utah.” That may have felt like the case for a long time, she said, but more recently, “there’s a gradual awakening.”

Slotnik has regularly voted since she was 18 years old, but it wasn’t until 2016, when President Donald Trump was elected, that she felt she “couldn’t be on the sidelines” anymore. She hadn’t felt a spark like that since the Vietnam War era, she said.

It wasn’t that Trump was a Republican, Slotnik said, but that he had a disregard for the country’s institutions and a lack of “common decency.”

Slotnik came out of retirement to create Salt Lake Indivisible, a group that originally started as a response to Trump, but has morphed into focusing on “good government” and registering people to vote with the organization Voterise.

“That seemed like a really concrete way to get back to what was important in our country,” Slotnik said.

While there was an increase in the number of Utah women voting in 2018, there were still 316,000 women in the state who were citizens but were not registered to vote, according to the Utah Women and Leadership Project report.

To try to reduce that number, Voterise created the 2020 Challenge to register 20,000 new female potential voters for 2020, said Elsa Gary, co-founder and co-president of the organization.

“It seemed like with Utah’s unique history with women’s voting, having so many unregistered women was something that we wanted to work on,” Gary said.

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Acts and the 150th anniversary since Utah became the first place where a woman voted in the country.

While Utah currently has a record number of women in the state Legislature, there are no women from the state in the U.S. Senate or House. Generally, Utah has not had women running for election at proportions as high as those in other states, Burbank said.

“That’s also another theory people point to, is that if you don’t see yourself represented in the political candidates, people don’t turn out,” Cotti said.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.