The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
Voter turnout could reach devastating lows this fall if a new poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics is any indication. Youth voters are expected to be especially absent from the polls.
Midterm elections usually feature significantly lower voter turnout than elections that include a presidential contest. For example, 56 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote in Utah in 2012–the year Mitt Romney ran against President Barack Obama. Just two years earlier, without a presidential election to draw interest, only 33 percent of Utahns voted.
The story is even more dismal for youth voters. According to one Harvard poll, only 24 percent of 18-29 year olds who were polled said they would definitely be voting this fall. That’s down 7 percent from the last midterm elections four years ago.
Electoral participation is in a crisis, and the damage to our democratic institutions could be significant.
Fewer and fewer people are voting for our leaders even though those leaders are selected to govern all of us. Almost 250 years ago, the Founding Fathers rebelled over the fact they were forced to pay taxes without being able to elect the leaders who instituted those tax policies. They decided to coalesce their movement around the resonant message, No Taxation without Representation. Hundreds of years later and we’re faced with an important question: Would that same slogan still be effective today? Or would today’s voters simply shrug their shoulders and return to their entertainment devices?
We’re still being taxed without representation, but the difference is that a majority of us are OK with it. If the Harvard poll is correct, 76% of young people will pay taxes for the next two years without making a choice about who represents them. That’s why we’re working with former congresswoman Karen Shepherd to launch a new internship program to counteract low engagement among Utah’s youth.
The Karen Shepherd Internship for Ethics and Good Government has two overarching purposes. First, the internship is designed to engage Utah’s brightest college students in the political sphere. We hope to counteract the downward trend that exists all over the United States. As Utahns we are particularly proud of our state and our heritage–but that pride needs to encompass more than our history and our beautiful landscapes, it should also encompass pride in our institutions–which is the second overarching purpose of this internship. Namely, Utahns need government institutions they can trust.
A string of disappointing leaders in the attorney general’s office has demonstrated that not even Utah is immune to the effects of unlimited money in campaigns. Key to creating and maintaining trustworthy organizations is the assurance that there is a level playing field in the political process. That’s why campaign finance reform is essential to ethics based legislation and good government practices. Interns that participate in the Karen Shepherd Internship for Ethics and Good Government will play a critical role in developing best practices for campaign finance reform and other ethics-based legislation.
It’ll take more than an internship to reverse Utah’s low voter turnout rates–but it is an important step in building the infrastructure that will reverse low turnout rates. We can’t afford to wait any longer.