Friday, July 24, 2009

Blame the Republicans for Low Voter Turnout, please… and then, let’s educate citizens.

The Davidson – Bernick story in Tuesday’s July 21st Deseret News entitled, “Utah next to last in voter turnout”, provided Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen an opportunity to blame Republicans for low voter turnout. She may be right, but not for the reasons she states.

Swensen asserts that low voter turnout is due to her notion that, “the Legislature has made it more inconvenient to register to vote." I’m sure Democrat Swensen has some great anecdotal stories to back this up, but I’m equally sure that this assertion is not the primary cause of low voter turnout.

To blame Republicans for low voter turnout may, however, contain a grain of truth. If you live in one of the best run states in the nation; if the state house is controlled by Republicans; if Republicans generally have done very well at the polls in recent years; if you see no compelling reason to make a change; if there does not seem to be a convincing opposing candidate; then one might determine to stay home because satisfaction typically does not move one to take action. However if that satisfaction is in peril and a contest of note ensues, then I believe we will see action, i.e. turnout, on the part of the voter.

But politics aside, why are eligible citizens in the United States (and Utah) less inclined to vote than many other more infant democracies around the world? During my lifetime, the right to vote has expanded significantly, not only through civil rights legislation but by lowering the voting age. And yet voter turnout seems to be depressed in Utah and with a few exceptions throughout the U.S.

There are some restrictions imposed on voting. You must be a citizen of the United States, 18 years of age and generally you must have some residency requirement, though this has been reduced significantly over the past 40 years to near insignificance, particularly in presidential elections, where almost half the states have no residency requirement and the rest have a 30 day or less residency requirement. This doesn’t seem to be an onerous restriction that would depress voter turnout, unless we decide that citizenship is too steep a requirement to vote.

Finally, to Swensen’s point, registration does indeed affect voter turnout. Where no registration is required and where registration has been allowed at the balloting location, it is true turnout has been greater. But then again, so has fraud. Especially in today’s environment of massive registration drives we have evidence of organized voter fraud by groups such as ACORN. Making it easier to register seems to bring out the worst in certain groups and individuals to illegally effect election outcomes.

The question should be asked, is low voter turnout bad? If the only way we can increase turnout is to allow easier registration so that last minute voting can be accomplished by those most easily affected by emotion and media and not by studying the issues and facts - which unfortunately does take more time and effort - then does a higher turnout produce a better result?

In the United States we have more frequent elections than almost any other place on earth. It seems we elect everyone… from state Governors to county Surveyors; Auditors to County Councils; etc. We might even assert that with referenda, school board elections, special elections, and regularly scheduled elections, a certain part of the citizenry might even have election fatigue.

But why has Utah become a bottom of the list state on the voter turnout lists? You have to admit that if Mitt Romney had been on the presidential ticket that Utah probably would have had one of the highest turnouts this last election. A favorite son who engendered real enthusiasm among the electorate would have put Utah at the top of the list I am sure.

The contest is key. If there is an exciting contest (close competition) or a compelling candidate there will be a good turnout. Some argue that in a state like Utah, seemingly dominated by one party, that there is no chance for an exciting contest or a compelling opposition candidate. Of course this is a generalization. Remember this state was dominated by Democrats just a couple of decades ago. And Republicans had to make inroads in state dominated by the opposition. And since then, there have been compelling Democrat candidates who have created exciting contests and who have won office when it seemed that the Republican “juggernaut” just couldn’t be broken. Jan Graham, Karen Shepherd, Wayne Owens, Bill Orton come to mind. But again, in Utah as it is elsewhere, if the citizenry is generally satisfied with the results of their leaders and there are no compelling reasons to change, many will stay at home and take no action.

Increasing participation at the polls seems like a good idea. We want everyone to participate (or do we want the informed everyone to participate?). So how do we do it? Why do so many people of age and eligibility stay at home on Election Day?

It is interesting that research ( is the source for most of my facts… the rest is just my opinion!) shows that personal one on one contact with a voter is still one of the best ways to influence someone to go to the polls. A friend or a family member has more influence than a direct mail piece or phone canvass, especially with first time voters. And now the new media of facebook, twitter, et al is making that approach perhaps even more viable.

The literature also points to education as a key indicator of voter turnout. The more education, the more likely a person is to vote. The issues of the day are complex and do require effort to understand. Education prepares us to understand and prepares us to act on that understanding. I believe that this area is critical in advancing good participation and not focusing only on raw numbers of voter turnout. Would you rather have a well informed person vote or someone inclined to vote on mere appearance or emotion? I would hope the former is the ideal of who should be exercising their right to vote.

We live in a mobile society and people now change jobs and locations frequently. This is a phenomenon of the last several decades. Census bureau data indicates that those who live in a single location five years or more tend to vote 20% more than those who have been settled for only one to two years. Stability and connectedness to the community you live in effects voter turnout significantly.

Age is very telling when it comes to voter turnout. If you are under 25 years old you are in a group of slackers when it comes to voting. That isn’t to say that some years and in some races you don’t make a difference, but generally, if you are under 25 you vote in numbers that average some 25% less than those over 65 years of age. Mobility/stability is certainly a factor here, but in any case, the impact of the youth vote generally has been highly over rated. Utah has a young population compared to other states and this alone could have a significant impact on voter turnout comparatively speaking with other states.

What about how we feel about our “public servants” (if we like them) or “politicians” (if we don’t trust them)? If we have a citizenry that feels disconnected from its government and its leaders or if they don’t understand the political process well and are confused by it, the likelihood of wanting to participate will drop as well. At least until there is a compelling candidate or issue that motivates them to action.

We can point accusatory fingers at the legislature and ask them to play more legislative games in setting times and dates for registration (we’ve allowed for early voting to make it more convenient to vote in hopes of increasing participation but this clearly has not happened from the data of the last election ) but the truth is, unless we want to open voting up to manipulation and fraud, it really doesn’t make sense to same day register and vote wherever you want, until we have the affordable technology to verify the legitimacy of the person voting. We cannot legislate citizen involvement; we can only create an environment that will encourage their informed involvement.

I am convinced and I believe the facts support this belief, that the most effective way to increase voter turnout is to educate our citizens about their duties and responsibilities in our democratic republic. This includes an informed citizenry, steeped in the issues, knowledgeable about the candidates, and versed in the veracity and validity of the Constitution of the United States in measuring both.

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