Utah prepares to celebrate first Women’s Voter Registration Day

As she was growing up, state Rep. Patrice Arent said there was a simple expectation in her family: “Women get involved. Women vote."

And leaders of the nonprofit Voterise are hoping that other women in Utah take that to heart this Valentine’s Day — which is also the state’s first Women’s Voter Registration Day and the 150th anniversary of a Utah woman being the first to vote under an equal suffrage law in the country.

“Women need to get up from the sidelines and start playing the game,” said Hope Zitting-Goeckeritz, Voterise’s director of operations, at a news conference Friday at the Capitol.

Following Arent’s mantra, Voterise announced its plans to get out the vote especially for the holiday. It will host voter registration drives at more than 10 high schools and colleges to get women ready to cast their ballots. The state representative sees that as the first step to “getting involved.”

The rate of women voting in the Beehive State has fluctuated widely in recent decades. 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. In the 2016 and 2018 elections, the number of women voting in the state bounced back up again, according to a September report from the Utah Women and Leadership Project.

But there are still 316,000 women here who are citizens but not registered to vote. To try to change that, Voterise created its 2020 Challenge with a goal of registering 20,000 new potential female voters. It kicks off on Feb. 14.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hope Zitting-Goeckeritz, Voterise's director of operations, left, and Elsa Gary, co-founder of Voterise, speak during a press conference at the Capitol Feb. 7. Voterise announced an initiative to increase voter participation among Utah women on Friday, in advance of first Women's Voter Registration Day Feb. 14 in Utah.

Murray Councilwoman Rosalba Dominguez said she set a personal goal of registering at least 100 women to vote and is challenging other elected officials to do the same. Her focus, she noted, is women of color.

“In the honor of Black History Month, we need to honor the amazing leaders like Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Coretta Scott King, to only name a few, and band together in our communities of color to help empower each other in this life and empower each other to vote. Our voice is needed and important,” said Dominguez, who was recently elected as the first Latina serving on the Murray City Council.

Erin Mendenhall said one of her commitments as Salt Lake City mayor “is making our city more equitable for women and girls.” Registering them to vote will help.

“Let’s strive to bring Utah’s women voting registration numbers to 100%," she said. “We still have a lot of work to do, of course, and we can do better and achieve more as a collective force."

Last year, Utah lawmakers designated Feb. 14 as Utah Women’s Voter Registration Day — and this year will be the first celebration. Mary Katharine Ballard, daughter of Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, who sponsored the resolution, was one of the first to register after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed it into law.

This year, Rep. Ballard is sponsoring a joint resolution celebrating the history of women’s suffrage in Utah.

Utah women received the right to vote twice before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. While Wyoming was the first to pass a suffrage law in December 1869, Utah followed shortly after on Feb. 12, 1870. Women in the territory voted in an election two days later, though, beating Wyoming women to the ballot box.

In 1887, Utah women lost the right to vote after the U.S. Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act as part of its anti-polygamy efforts. They got the right to vote back when Utah drafted its constitution and became a state in 1896.

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment and 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.

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 by clicking here.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Voterise co-founder Elsa Gary, left, and Hope Zitting-Goeckeritz, director of operations, pictured Feb. 7 at the Capitol, want to get more Utah women to register to vote.