Or a 10-cent gas tax hike for education; or a razor-thin race for the fourth congressional district; or a man in the White House who in his, shall we say “unique” way, gets people excited about voting; or whatever it was that truly got people out this year.
I’ve been doing this a long time. The first column I wrote about voter turnout, or the lack thereof, was 20 years ago. Back then 45 percent of registered voters had just participated in an off-year election, and it was popular to do a lot of hand wringing about the future of democracy.
And voter turnout is suddenly up.
Up, that is, but not overwhelmingly great.
Utah’s official turnout rate was 75.5 percent of registered voters. That is the highest for a nonpresidential year since 1962, when the figure was 77 percent. This is good news, of course, but it must be kept in perspective.
The percentage of registered voters is only a measure of how many people who already had the initiative to register decided to actually follow through. The United States Elections Project keeps track of a more telling statistic — the percentage of eligible voters — people 18 or older who aren’t in prison — who voted.
Preliminary figures showed Utah with a 51.4 percent turnout under this definition. A pessimist might say this means almost half of eligible Utahns didn’t vote. The optimist would note that this still is a big improvement over past elections.
So the question of the day seems to be, is nastiness good for voter turnout?
By nastiness, I mean the perpetual state of rage and demonization of the other side that seems to define a portion of the electorate today, from the president on down. The answer seems to be — probably. No one expects a low turnout in 2020, especially if Donald Trump stands for re-election. This time around, control of the House seemed to be a catalyst, especially in the fourth district, which swung to the Democratic side by a margin too small to fill your local school auditorium.
Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox told reporters the highest vote count for anything on the ballot was for Proposition 2, the statewide medical marijuana initiative. That means many people participated solely because of that item, not voting for anything else. That hardly qualifies them as an engaged electorate.
But he also attributed the turnout to “the political atmosphere,” saying, “Certainly, having a president that’s so controversial and every day is tweeting and getting people involved for better or worse, whichever way you look at that, definitely that’s driving things.”
During this election season, members of the KSL/Deseret News editorial board often asked candidates for federal office what they would do to end the divisiveness in Washington. When I asked that of Rep. Rob Bishop, he scoffed at the premise and gave me a quick history lesson on the long tradition of nastiness in American politics. We’re hardly plowing new ground.
That may be true, but it seems as if we’ve taken things to a new level recently. After all, when I wrote that column back in 1998, the House was getting ready to impeach President Clinton. That didn’t seem to be enough to get people interested in voting.
And if today’s high turnout rate really is a Trump effect, what happens when he no longer is on the ballot? Will we still be able to muster the rage to vote?
Is rage really the defining factor to a vibrant democracy? Should it be?
In a Deseret News op-ed published a year ago, Utah Foundation President Peter Reichard noted a clear correlation between voter turnout and high education levels, high incomes and older age groups. This may explain, at least partially, why Minnesota seems always to lead the nation in turnout, despite not always having competitive races. As a state, it ranks second in the nation for the percentage of people with an associate’s degree or higher, according to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.
Getting people to vote through this route seems better for democracy in the long run than trying to keep them enraged.