Could the lack of ballot initiatives in Utah be hurting our voter turnout? Turns out, it could be a significant factor in our low number of voters.
For the past 10 years, several states have led the way in voter participation: Maine, Wisconsin, Colorado, Alaska, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington.
There is no obvious partisan similarity among these states, however, there are two things that do appear to be consistent.
The first is the ease with which people can vote. It is certainly not the only driving force but studies have shown that the easier it is for people to vote, the more likely they are to exercise that right. Three of the states, Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin all have election day voter registration which allows people to register and vote on election day. And both Oregon and Washington hold elections exclusively by mail. Just this week Oregon also passed a law that will automatically register all eligible citizens to vote.
Utah has a pretty good track record with voting rights. We have a voter ID law but it is one of the least restrictive in the nation and is not viewed as a significant obstacle. Also, thanks to the hard work of Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck of Salt Lake City and the support of our Lt. Governor, Spencer Cox, we are in the middle of a testing phase for election day voter registration. Passed two years ago as a pilot program, it was augmented this year by also allowing registration at early vote centers. If all goes as planned, we’ll see a bill during the 2016 session to permanently enact election day registration across the state.
The second factor that encourages higher voter turnout in those top states is perceived importance. In other words, if people feel their votes actually make a difference, it appears that they are more likely to vote. When states see competitive races and contested ballot initiatives, voter turnout increases. Unfortunately in Utah, neither of those two conditions exist.
Utah has very few competitive elections. The last time a Democrat was elected, or even considered a viable candidate for statewide office, was when Jan Graham was elected to two successive terms as Attorney General in 1993.
And as far as citizen ballot initiatives go, its unlikely we’ll have any, let alone contested ones, considering the great lengths the legislature has taken to make them practically impossible. Ever since the successful ballot initiative against school vouchers in 2007, the legislature has created seemingly insurmountable obstacles to meeting the benchmarks required to get an initiative on the ballot. Last year’s Count My Vote group came the closest to making it and they spent well over $1M. Not exactly grassroots.
Finding the solution to Utah’s embarrassingly low voter turnout leaves us with this quandary.
To have competitive elections you must be able to dilute the small poll of extreme voters by increasing the number of more mainstream moderate voters. Yet how do you encourage more mainstream moderate voters until you have competitive elections where they feel their vote will count.
Utahns need to reclaim the power of the ballot box. We need to shrug off our reluctance to vote over partisan frustrations and dissatisfaction. We can turn around these numbers but its going to take every one of us exercising this hard-fought right.
As we’ve said before, your vote is your voice and Utah, its time to raise your voices.