“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
And the way the governed give their consent is through elections. And greater the share of the governed who have given their consent — or at least their opinion — the more representative, and so legitimate, that government is.
Thus it was good news when the turnout for this year’s general election was the highest Utah had seen for a midterm election in half a century. A little more than 1 million of us exercised the franchise. That’s a good 75 percent of registered voters, and 52 percent of the state’s voting-age citizenry.
Turnout like that meant that two important things had happened.
One, the state of Utah and (most of) its counties had made it easy to register and to vote.
Eligible citizens can get on the rolls in person, by mail or online. Identification requirements are reasonable. Deadlines basically don’t exist because, for the first time this year, it was possible to register at the polls on Election Day.
Two, there was reason for a great many voters to believe that, more than usual, their votes meant something.
The most obvious example of that was the hyper-competitive race in the 4th Congressional District, between Rep. Mia Love, a Republican, and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a Democrat. The district is the most competitive in the state. In fact, due to the bald-faced efforts by the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature to gerrymander those districts to favor the GOP, it is the only competitive district in the state.
That status, the fact that McAdams was already experienced and well-known, and the suspicion that, given the low popularity of the Republican in the White House, this might be a really good year for Democrats nationally, brought attention and money to the campaigns and clearly boosted voter interest and turnout. Especially in the McAdams-friendly precincts of Salt Lake County, which pushed the challenger, barely, over the top.
Though there is reason to believe that the biggest motivator for folks who might otherwise passed on participating was Proposition 2, the measure that would make some forms of medical cannabis legal for some particular maladies. That initiative passed, as did citizen-driven measures to expand Medicaid (Prop 3) and somewhat de-politicize the process of drawing legislative and congressional districts in years to come (Prop 4).
Competitive elections and popular initiatives draw voter interest and participation. And greater voter participation, in turn, can improve the quality and quantity of candidates, as would-be politicians see a better chance of reaching the reasonable middle of the electorate rather than being put off by fear that only the far fringes of the electorate will care.
More voters, some of them voting by mail and some of them registering on Election Day, slowed up the counting this year. And, unless a lot more people get their mail-in ballots in earlier, results that take a week or two to fully tabulate may become the new normal.
But if it means voter turnout like this, it will be well worth the wait.