New data indicate that one of every four Utah adults is not registered to vote this election year. That concerns both major parties which squabble over blame and what reforms might improve numbers.
"That is really troubling, and improving it should be a No. 1 priority for both parties," said Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright. Utah Democratic Party Executive Director Matt Lyon added, "That's awful. We're hugely concerned."
The U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday released estimates of the voting-age population of each state showing 1.94 million Utahns are old enough to vote this year.
Meanwhile, records maintained by Lt. Gov. Greg Bell's office show that 1.47 million Utahns are registered to vote, or just 76 percent of all adults in the state.
That means about 464,000 Utah adults are not registered to vote, or 2.5 times the population of Salt Lake City, the state's largest. Also of note in 2010 elections, only one of three Utahns old enough to vote actually did the second-lowest turnout among the states.
Kirk Jowers, who headed the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy set up by former Gov. Jon Huntsman to increase voter turnout, says many Utahns fail to vote or register because they feel their vote does not matter in part because the caucus and convention system here avoids most primaries, and the big-majority GOP easily wins most elections.
"If there are exciting, interesting elections for the citizens of Utah, they will register and they will vote," Jowers said. "All too often everything is decided in convention. There's no primary, and the general election is irrelevant because of the dominant party in our state."
Lyon blames low registration and turnout in part on gerrymandering by Republicans to make many of their seats safe. "People feel like their vote doesn't count, doesn't matter, so they don't get involved like they should."
Republicans say redistricting has been fair. And Wright expects Republicans to get excited about elections this year and vote in bigger numbers especially if Mitt Romney wins the GOP presidential nomination.
"You would see an overwhelming surge of Republican votes you have not seen in this state because of our low participation numbers. I would not want to be a Democrat on the 2012 ticket if Mitt Romney is the presidential nominee," he said.
Lyon, however, says he doesn't think a Romney nomination would help voter-registration drives much. "Utahns like to think of themselves as independents. … Many vote for (Democratic Rep.) Jim Matheson because they like him and because crossing over to vote for a Democrat shows their independence."
Voter registration data show that 49.8 percent of registered Utah voters are officially unaffiliated with any party. Another 40.6 percent are registered as Republicans, and only 9.1 percent are registered as Democrats.
Jowers said a top recommendation by his commission to improve voter participation is to allow same-day voter registration on Election Day. "The commission believed that Utah has enough safeguards in place to make that feasible. … I think it would have a huge impact. I'd still like to see it enacted." The Legislature has not shown much interest in it.
Wright said he would like to encourage the Legislature to make voting by mail automatic in Utah but still give Utahns an option to still go to polls on Election Day if they choose.
He said mailing ballots to voters increases participation because they receive ballots earlier, do not need to research where to vote, are not affected by bad weather, and can still vote if they are busy or out of town on Election Day. Both Wright and Lyon said their parties are pushing more of their party members to choose optional voting by mail.
Both parties also said they plan extensive voter registration drives this election year, generally targeting areas where they figure more of their party members live.
Wright said Republicans will focus on new-growth areas such as Herriman and Riverton where registration numbers have been low as perhaps new move-ins forget to register at their new addresses.
Lyon said Democrats will focus drives on other areas where it figures voter registration is low, such as West Valley City, Murray, Kearns and Ogden.
How to register to vote
P Online voter registration for adults with a Utah driver's license is available at 1.usa.gov/cbii3J. Information about how to register by mail or in person is available at vote.utah.gov.