Utahns regularly pack public meetings to speak their mind on tax reform. Or expanding Medicaid. Or big housing developments planned for their neighborhoods.
More recently, they’ve gathered to express their views on face masks and vaccines.
If it seems like Utahns attend more public meetings than those in other states, it is because they do.
A new Utah Foundation study has the state ranked third in the nation in public meeting participation.
“It is indicative of a broader interest and participation in community life,” said Peter Reichard, president of the nonprofit research organization.
But the Utah Foundation also focused on two data points that are not as encouraging: Utah’s turnout in elections still lags behind most states, and Utah has far fewer advocacy groups than the rest of the nation.
This is the first in a series of reports on “social capital,” which has become a hot term among policy leaders. Essentially, they are seeking to quantify the ties between people and their ties to leading institutions like governments and schools, at a time when those bonds have been fraying.
Reichard said he has six more reports planned, which will compare Utah to other states in the Mountain West and to the nation. In their totality, these reports will paint a picture of Utah having more social capital than other states.
But this first one raises some concerns, starting with the relatively low voting rates. In the 2020 presidential race, Utah had a turnout rate of 64%. That ranks 39th in the nation.
“It isn’t a very impressive ranking nationally,” Reichard said.
Yet, it is an improvement for Utah — and a significant one at that. Back in 2008, Utah’s turnout was 53%. This stat compares voters against the total available voting population.
For years, Utah was mired in the bottom five states for turnout. That changed with the gradual adoption of mail-in voting. Now all eligible voters get a ballot mailed to their home, and that led to huge gains in the off-year election of 2018, when 58% of Utahns voted, a 21 percentage point jump from 2014.
“When we make voting easier, more people turn out,” said Katie Matheson, the deputy director of the Alliance for a Better Utah. She also noted that huge interest in ballot initiatives on medical marijuana, Medicaid and an independent redistricting commission drove interest in 2018.
In that year, when there wasn’t a presidential election, Utah ranked 13th in turnout nationally. It marked a huge improvement. Two years later, Reichard said, Utah “came back down to earth a bit.”
One theory could be that many other states offered more mail-in voting in 2020 because of the pandemic, he said, which could have lowered Utah’s rating.
Utah’s 64% turnout was lower than the national average of 67% and the only states in the region with lower turnout were New Mexico at 63% and Nevada at 62%.
Both Reichard and Matheson said a likely factor is that Utah has few competitive races.
The state as a whole is conservative and Republicans tend to win statewide races and most congressional races by big margins. Even in local races, the outcomes are rarely close. Democrats win in dominant Democratic areas like Salt Lake City. Republicans win in the Republican areas. And there are few swing districts.
Matheson also said turnout could be low because Utah is the youngest state in the nation and younger people don’t vote at the same rates as older people.
She argues the state has to continue to find ways to ensure voters feel heard and represented. One way is the ongoing redistricting process, which happens once a decade. This redrawing of the districts gives state lawmakers a chance to fight voter disengagement.
The Utah Foundation also reports that the state has fewer advocacy groups than much of the country. The state has 2.6 organizations per 100,000 people. That ranks 43rd nationally. Researchers got to this number by looking at tax data. The foundation focused on advocacy groups because they help turn the issues people care about into political solutions.
Matheson works at one of these advocacy groups, a progressive one, and she’s a bit stumped by this data, unsure why Utah would rank so low. She believes it might be because some advocacy organizations are all-volunteer endeavors so they don’t submit tax information to the government. Or maybe what some advocacy organizations do in other states is handled here by religious organizations, namely The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The foundation, which said Utah has persistently ranked low in the number of advocacy groups, argued that this “merits closer study to determine both the underlying reasons and the implications for civic life and social capital.”
But this organization believes Utah should crow about its high rating of participating in public meetings, which trails only Vermont and Maine. This data comes from a census question, and the most recent data is from 2019. It found that 18% of Utahns say they attended a public meeting in the past year, while 11% of people nationally did. In this category, Utah has topped the national average for more than a decade.
There have been all kinds of jammed public meetings in the past few years. Think of the town halls for elected officials or fights over the Olympia Hills housing development near Herriman. There has been a big turnout to discuss police reform or where a new homeless shelter should be located.
And then there’s the pandemic. Groups against mask mandates or vaccine requirements have flooded public meetings held by school boards, county councils and the Legislature.
“What we know when change happens — particularly change that feels personal, and changes in your neighborhood feel personal, the pandemic feels personal — we have extended moments of chaos,” Matheson said. “People feel motivated to show up.”