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Four years ago, in the 2006 midterm elections, the U.S. census estimated that Utah had the nation's worst voting-participation rate when only 36.7 percent of residents age 18 and older cast ballots.

It was even lower Tuesday, when only 33.2 percent of them voted. That means that two of every three citizens who are old enough to vote in Utah didn't bother to do so.

"I'm shocked and profoundly disappointed that we couldn't even meet the worst-in-the-nation performance we had in 2006 with a special governor's race at the top of the ticket and supposed enthusiasm for Republicans in a Republican state," said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

Jowers also served as acting chairman of the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Democracy set up by former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to try to improve voter turnout after newspaper stories about how Utah was last in the nation during recent elections.

"Plenty of money was spent in the races. But one problem for Utah, which is obviously hard to rectify, is that competitive races bring out voters, and there was a perception that there were no competitive races," Jowers said.

Of course, the 2nd Congressional District race between Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Morgan Philpot turned out to be close.

"But the polls said it would not be. The Matheson-Philpot race proves what we always say: Polls don't matter — the final vote matters," Jowers said.

Unofficial returns as of Wednesday afternoon indicated that 593,621 Utahns cast ballots in the gubernatorial race this week. That will go up some as absentee votes are counted, said Mark Thomas, director of elections for Lt. Gov. Greg Bell's office.

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Utah has 1.79 million adults age 18 or older who are citizens. So fewer than a third of them voted this week.

The U.S. Elections Project at Virginia's George Mason University refines numbers a bit further, excluding prisoners and parolees from the eligible voting population. In doing that, it figures that 34.3 percent of eligible Utahns cast votes this week — 45th among the 50 states.

That was exactly the same as the 34.3 percent it said participated in 2006 (Utah then ranked No. 42 among the states) and worse than the 37 percent in 2002 (that ranked the state No. 37).

Thomas said Utah has about 1.26 million registered voters among its adult population. So about 47.3 percent of them cast ballots this year — and that may also rise a bit as absentee ballots are counted.

That number is up from the 44.7 percent of registered Utah voters who cast ballots in the 2006 midterm elections, but down from the 50 percent who did in 2002, according to figures supplied by Thomas.

"We thought we would have a turnout of at least 55 percent" this week, he said.

Still, Thomas said the actual turnout was up a bit compared with the last midterm election — at least among registered voters — likely because of the special governor's election and a tight 2nd Congressional District race.

"We hope the upward trend will continue. It's not too high right now," Thomas said.

A ray of hope for higher turnout, Jowers said, is the expected presidential campaign of Mitt Romney in 2012. He said if Romney is on the ticket, excited Utahns "will come close — if not lead the country — in voter turnout. The trick will be to capitalize on that in the future when he is not on the ticket."

Jowers is a longtime Romney supporter and adviser.

Also, Jowers said a key recommendation from the governor's commission that has yet to be enacted could help turnout in Utah.

"That is same-day voter registration. The top six states in voter turnout all have same-day voter registration," Jowers said. "Utah has very strict identification and other laws that effectively protect the state from fraud, so we are well-positioned to become a same-day registration state. No other change is more effective in improving turnout."

Jowers also said that Utah's caucus and convention system may depress turnout because it allows a small number of state party convention delegates to essentially write the ballot without participation by most of the electorate.

"It excludes more than 99 percent of the state at the outset, and it's just harder to catch people back up when they are treated as irrelevant when the initial — and sometimes most important — selections are made," he said.

For example, 18-year incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, was eliminated at the Republican convention this year in voting by a few thousand delegates. Bennett was gone before he could face regular voters in a primary or general election, and he ruled out a write-in campaign. —

Unwanted distinction

Utah's ranking among the worst states in the nation for voter participation isn't improving and may be dropping, as hundreds of thousands of adults sit out elections.