Study: Most Utah races are noncompetitive, leading to low voter turnout

‘Why vote if my vote doesn’t make a difference’ is common feeling; initiatives propose changes that may create more competition.<br>

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A voter drops her ballot at an official ballot drop box that doesn't need a post date at the Salt Lake County complex on election day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016.

Utah’s general election races were so lopsided and noncompetitive last year that 71 percent were decided by margins wider than 30 percent. A new study says that is one reason why Utah’s voter turnout is among the nation’s lowest.

“It’s closely tied to the feeling of, ‘Why vote if my vote doesn’t make a difference — if it’s a foregone conclusion who’s going to win,’” says Shawn Teigen, research director for the Utah Foundation, which released an updated study Tuesday about voting behavior in the state.

Such frustration has generated voter referendum drives now underway that could bring some big changes, the report says. “And we want to help inform the dialogue” with the study, said Peter Reichard, president of the Utah Foundation.

“For instance, a new approach to redistricting could yield more competitive races, which might in turn boost voter turnout,” the study says. The Better Boundaries initiative seeks to create an independent commission to redraw political boundaries, and avoid gerrymandering that protects incumbents or parties.

Also, Reichard said, “There is a perception among some that candidates don’t represent them — so why bother to vote.”

Critics of the caucus-convention system say it worsens that problem because extremists control it and nominate candidates who tend to be well to the right or left of the mainstream. The Count My Vote initiative seeks to dump that system, and use a direct primary where voters — rather than a relatively small number of delegates — select party nominees.

As debate on those initiatives looms, the new study issued findings including:

• Utah’s 2016 voter participation was 39th in the nation, continuing a substantial decline over the past 40 years.

It said 58 percent of eligible voters participated as polls reported the three-way presidential race in the state was close. It was actually an uptick from 2012 and 2008. But it is far lower than recent decades. Utah voter turnout was as high as 70 percent in 1976, when Utah was far above the national average.

• Noncompetitive races are the norm in Utah. Over the past seven general and midterm election cycles, more than 60 percent of state races were noncompetitive.

“We live in a state where most of its residents are conservative except in one county [Salt Lake]. So you are bound to have uncompetitive races when you have very polarized groups,” but gerrymandering can make it even worse, Teigen said.

• Utah’s electorate is highly polarized, and its convention delegates are even more so. The foundation previously found significant gaps between delegates and general voters in their party.

“You can see that with what occurred in the 3rd District” Republican primary race this year, Teigen said.

GOP convention delegates backed ultraconservative Chris Herrod. Among candidates they rejected was Provo Mayor John Curtis. But Curtis qualified for the primary ballot by collecting signatures and easily won the Republican nomination.

Teigen says the jury is still out about whether changing the system through the current referendums could increase turnout. “You may get somebody [as a nominee] who is less polarizing, but does that mean you are then going to lose some of the voters who are more pumped up about that kind of polarizing figure?”

While some of the initiatives could bring change, Teigen said, “I think that maybe we haven’t found the magic bullet that gets people into the voting booth.”

Reichard said his foundation is taking no stand on any of the initiatives, but, “It is healthy that there is a lot of interest and concern about voting.”