In the 2012 Utah Priorities Survey, respondents listed partisan politics as one of their top concerns for the upcoming elections. This is significant not only because it was the first time this issue had been listed as a top-ten concern in this series of surveys, but also the first time it was seen as a concern at all. An additional area of concern that may be affected by partisan politics is Utah’s declining voter turnout rates.
At the national level, partisan politics is at record levels. Polarization between the two major parties in Congress is currently at its highest level since the end of Reconstruction. In addition, there has been a steady decrease in the number of moderates in Congress since 1939. Currently, the number of moderates in both chambers of the U.S. Congress is at a historic low.
While Utah’s voter turnout once was well above the national average, in 2008, it fell to ninth-lowest among the states and District of Columbia. Two important measures can influence whether a person votes: their perception of whether their vote counts, and the level of costs involved in voting. In addition, research links high civic involvement, such as volunteering, to high voting rates. Utah has the highest volunteerism rate in the nation, but it does not translate to high voting rates.
Utah historically saw swings in party dominance over the past century, but the Republican Party has held strong majorities in both houses of the State Legislature since 1977. Its current majority is at near record levels. Utah’s voter turnout was high in the 1970s, when more political races seemed competitive. As more of these races became uncontested or were won by very large margins of victory, the trend in voter turnout was falling. The level of uncompetitive races reached a peak in 1996, which also coincided with the largest drop in voter turnout during this period.
Utah’s voting rules and access to information may increase voting costs, also potentially affecting voter turnout. Utah requires voter registration forms be postmarked 30 days prior to an election, as opposed to states that allow election-day registration. Utah’s closed Republican primary presents yet another restriction to voter turnout, as it limits the participation of independent voters and Democrats. The caucus-convention system also adds another complication, requiring voters not just to understand an additional layer of the electoral process, but to be aware of changing caucus and convention dates and locations.
(Updated on 6/19/2012 to correct references to Utah’s voter ID requirements)