New study says Utah voter turnout is dismal and ‘uncompetitive’ races may be the reason why

Utah ranks 39th in the nation in voter participation, a just-released study of 2016 state office elections by the Utah Foundation shows.

The voting study update, called a “research brief” by the non-profit government policy think tank, shows Utah voter turnout continues to drop generally, although depending on the election year turnout has jumped up at times.

Still, Utah used to have one of the best voter participation rates in the nation.

And the new Foundation report gives credibility to two citizen groups who are today trying to improve turn out (and other government operations) via citizen initiative petitions aimed for the 2018 general election ballot.

Count My Vote is back, and trying to make voter signature gathering the only way candidates can get on their political party primary election ballots.

Better Boundaries is a separate group trying to get an independent redistricting commission on next year’s ballot.

If both make the ballot and are approved by voters, their backers say those changes should improve voter turnout (among other good government advancements).

The Utah Foundation says that may be the case.

But at least for now, Utah voters are suffering from poor participation numbers.

Here are a few listed in the “brief” update:

— Utah voters led the nation in turnout in 1976 with over 70 percent participation.

— But since then Utah turnout has been on a slide – some years near the bottom nationally.

— While 58 percent of Utah registered voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential general election, that was still 39th in the nation among the states.

— When you consider the number of adult citizens who could vote (many of whom don’t bother to even register to vote), less than 30 percent of Utahns are casting ballots – and thus deciding who their government leaders will be.

— Perhaps because of the caucus/delegate/convention system, or GOP-controlled redistricting, or both, 71 percent of federal and state races – Congress, governor and state House and Senate — in 2016 resulted in the winner getting more than 30 percentage points more votes than second place.

These are called “uncompetitive” races. And if nearly three-fourths of elections result in such one-sided victories, there is little incentive for many citizens to vote – if they favor the winner (usually the GOP candidate in Utah) then he or she will win regardless of their vote, and if they favor the underdog, there’s no chance their vote will change the election’s outcome.

So why take the time and effort to vote?

Previous Utah Foundation studies show Utah’s electorate is highly polarized, and party delegates are even more so.

So, under the caucus/delegate/convention process the GOP delegates are picking candidates more to the right than rank-and-file Republicans, while Democrats are doing the same thing on the left.

Those candidates are less appealing to “mainstream” Utah voters – who may be staying home since they don’t much like either the very conservative Republican, or the very liberal Democratic, candidates.

The study concludes: “Certain proposed changes could have significant impacts.

“For instance, a new approach to redistricting could yield more competitive races, which might in turn boost voter turnout.

“A change in the primary system could engage a broader base of voters and alter the dynamics of general elections.”

Or, the Foundation says, the Utah problem of low voter turnout could simply be beyond governmental reforms.