This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Neither long lines nor freezing temperatures nor a lack of ballots could keep voters away from political caucuses in March. With lines snaking around the block in many neighborhoods, thousands flocked to schools and community centers to weigh in on an election for the history books.
These voters showed up to rally around a candidate, to make a statement and to join a community. They met their neighbors and talked issues and debated policies. And those images of participatory government are a beautiful sight in a state that has been in a slump when it comes to voter turnout.
While more than 1 million voters cast ballots in the last presidential election, nearly 30 percent of Utahns eligible to vote didn't even register to vote. That means Utah's true voter turnout in 2012 a year which featured Republican Mitt Romney at the top of the GOP ticket was more like 55 percent, well below the national average of 58 percent. Two years later, turnout hit a historic low; the non-presidential general election of 2014 saw less than 30 percent of Utah voters cast a ballot.
Unfortunately, voter turnout in Utah has been spiraling for decades. For some, particularly first-time voters, the registration and election process can feel complicated and intimidating and politicians may seem inaccessible and unresponsive. Add to that the gridlock and partisan bickering we see in Washington and you can see why many Utahns choose to ignore their civic duty.
No matter the cause, the downward trend has real consequences. Fewer voters perpetuates disenfranchisement from government and further discourages citizens from getting politically involved. Fewer voters amplifies the priorities of those who do show up, giving some issues outsized importance. Fewer voters injects pessimism and cynicism into a government founded on idealism and patriotism.
That's why March was so refreshing. Seeing Utah voters attend their caucus meetings because they felt that their voice could make a difference and watching citizens wait for hours for the chance to join together showed the power of civic engagement.
For years, election officials and politicians have brainstormed ways to boost voter participation. Ideas such as a vote-by- mail option, same-day voter registration and early voting are showing promise in motivating voters.
But as important as systemic changes are, people need to believe their vote counts. This election cycle, voters need to understand that their voice will make a difference. Ironically, votes have always made a difference, but we need to do a better job of communicating that to the public. Somehow, civic influencers, business leaders and educators need to convey the message that it's not enough to blog about political gripes or spar around the water cooler. A vibrant democracy requires action and voting remains the easiest and most direct way for citizens to steer government and shape policy.
As rancorous and unorthodox as this election season has been so far, I'm actually hopeful the contention and controversies will inspire voters to action. Our recent Hinckley Institute of Politics/Salt Lake Tribune poll shows tight races and strong feelings on a range of issues which could galvanize a new generation of Utah voters and reignite a passion for politics in the more experienced. A political advocate can only hope.
Jason Perry is director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.