Utah Making Efforts to Boost Voter Participation

New Utah Foundation LogoUtah once had one of the best voter participation rates in the nation, with turnout reaching nearly 70% in elections going back to 1980. That’s gone down significantly in recent years, and a new Utah Foundation report Voting in Utah: Analyzing Current Practices and Future Options for Utah Voters looks at reasons for that decline as well as efforts to bring it back up.

While there are some innovative programs designed to bring new voters into the system – such as signing up high school students before they’re actually old enough to vote – the report finds that additional programs such as improved outreach to the voting-age population could help to increase participation.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Elements of all three voting recommendations put forth by the Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Utah’s Democracy in 2009 have been acted upon, both through creation of temporary and permanent legislative change.
  • Utah employs three innovative methods of voter registration outside of direct interaction with election officials: online, Election Day registration (as a pilot project in self-selecting counties until 2016), and preregistration for 16- and 17-year-old Utahns.
  • Utah has long been the youngest population in the nation. This means that low voter registration in the youngest age group can translate to low voter registration for the state as a whole, although it has not always translated to low participation.
  • Vote-by-mail and early voting are two ways to reduce the theoretical cost of voting to potential voters.
  • Outreach to existing and potential voters is critical for any of the suggested solutions to be effective.
  • Utah cities conducting all vote-by-mail elections saw an average increase in turnout from 21% in 2011 to 38% in 2015. A similar increase in turnout has been seen in the early years of vote by-mail implementation in other states.
  • A voting system which includes numerous options for voters, such as Election Day registration, early voting, or optional vote-by-mail, is more likely to see high turnout than a system without.

“Beginning in 2009, Governor Huntsman and the Utah Legislature took steps to increase participation with online voter registration and other efforts,” said Utah Foundation Research Analyst Mallory Bateman. “Prior to that, voter turnout had dropped to around 50% in in presidential years and about 30% in mid-term elections.”

“One interesting aspect of the research pointed toward the impacts of outreach and publicity on voter turnout,” Bateman added. “Although local entities bear much of the administrative cost of elections, there are some low cost options for increasing outreach and informing the public of the choices available to them.”

The report also looks at efforts to increase voter registration. “One thing we discovered in this report and others is that many Utahns believe they’re registered to vote when they’re not,” said Utah Foundation Research Director Shawn Teigen. “This is especially true for younger voters.”

The report Voting in Utah: Analyzing Current Practices and Future Options for Utah Voters is available on the Utah Foundation website at www.utahfoundation.org. The website also includes past reports, our blog and links to news coverage of Utah Foundation research.