There are No Easy Answers on the Question of Voter Turnout

Written by: Peter Reichard


At a year-end meeting this month, Utah Foundation’s board members ranked our findings for 2017. Two of the top-ranked findings pertained to voter turnout. The issue of voter turnout came up a few days later over lunch with a friend who wanted to explore ways to boost the numbers in Utah. Meanwhile, statewide, two separate groups have been gathering signatures for ballot initiatives to rethink the way we elect our candidates, both with an eye to boosting turnout.

It’s certainly a good sign that Utahns care about voter turnout. But there are no easy answers.

In a recent report on elections, Utah Foundation found that our state’s voter participation was 39th in the nation in the 2016 presidential election. It also found that uncompetitive general election races are the norm. In 2016, 71% of Utah’s state races were won by a margin of greater than 30%.

These two findings are not unrelated. It’s an article of faith among some who study voter turnout that race competitiveness is what drives people to the polls.

To be sure, voters may not feel energized for a presidential vote in states where the outcome is a near-certainty. Take deep blue Hawaii, which has by far the nation’s lowest turnout for presidential elections.

That said, the connection between competitive races and turnout is not ironclad. Minnesota consistently leads the nation in turnout for presidential elections despite voting consistently blue since 1976. In 2016, the turnout even in consistently red Utah exceeded two battleground states: neighboring Nevada and Arizona.

But what if increasing race competitiveness were the key to greater voter turnout in general elections? Well, to the extent that our general election races are uncompetitive, much of the problem might be attributable to the fact that the political parties themselves are uncompetitive. And if that’s the case, what can government or anyone outside of the political parties themselves do about it? If one or the other major political party consistently fails to capture a majority in a given state, its message might simply be too narrow or exclusive for the audience in question.

Another dogma on voter turnout is that if we could just make it easier to vote, people will show up. Surely, if a citizen can register to vote and then vote all in one day without getting off the sofa, more would vote. But voter turnout has been in decline in for years, despite efforts to make voting easier. Utah had voter participation as high as 70% in the 1976 presidential election; in more recent presidential races turnout has hovered just below 60%. Even more striking are the national trends in presidential elections. Voter turnout has fluctuated significantly during the past century, peaking in 1960, without apparent regard to the ease of voting.

Some patterns on voter turnout are clear: Turnout increases with educational achievement levels, higher incomes (perhaps a proxy for higher tax-consciousness) and older age groups. Further, women outperform men at the polls. But these factors are beyond the reach of voting policy changes.

Finally, there’s a rarely asked, fundamental question: What, precisely, is the goal of boosting voter turnout? Clearly, many people think voting should be easier and that high voter turnout is an unmitigated good. But there is another school of thought that argues you can degrade democratic ideals by coddling voters who otherwise wouldn’t care enough to make the effort. Some of those who are unwilling to wait in line for a few minutes might also lack the most basic knowledge required for an informed vote. According to a 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, only 26% of Americans can name the three branches of government.

This alarming sign for citizenship may relate directly to declining voter turnout. If citizens don’t understand our system of government, how can they begin to appreciate the blessings of the democratic process and the privilege of voting?

So it looks like the best hope for voter turnout might be to increase the number of citizens who know what their vote means. And it looks like parents, educators, the media and civic leaders have their work cut out for them in building an informed citizenry.

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