Voter turnout is down, but why fewer voters show up is complicated. Competition and duty help explain it, but only partially. Even with Count My Vote changes taking effect this year, don’t expect higher voter turnout.
A New Low for Democracy
As a nation, we don’t turn out to vote very consistently, and we’re getting worse. A New York Times article claims that turnout during the recent mid-terms was the lowest turnout in 72 years with “43 states, less than half the eligible population bothered to vote, and no state broke 60 percent.”
Utah is no different says BYU political scientist Adam Brown: “[I]t appears that Utah just experienced one of its worst showings in decades for an even-year election. More and more, it seems that Utahns are giving up on voting.”
Why is a more complicated question. While stricter voter ID laws have depressed voter turnout in other states, says Kelly Patterson, voter turnout in Utah has continued to fall even after Utah “liberalized absentee and vote-by-mail options,” thus diminishing institutional factors.
What’s the problem, then?
The Role of Competition and Duty
Pointing to the recent Utah Voter Poll (or “UVP”), Patterson says its a lack of competition and individual commitment to vote.
First, most voters don’t see much competition and so don’t show up. With many Utah elective offices featuring either only one candidate (usually a Republican running unopposed) or two candidates, one of which is a sacrificial lamb, voters don’t see much sense in voting.
[M]ost individuals believed that the lack of competitiveness resulted in a reduced desire to vote. None of the other choices come even close to this one single reason for not voting. Apathy, too busy, or an inability to navigate the difficulties of registering and getting out to the polls all lag far behind as explanations offered up by habitual voters as reasons for not voting. Now the UVP is mostly made up of voters, so we are essentially asking voters why they think nonvoters do not vote, but the distribution of answers is certainly instructive.
It’s not much of a choice when there’s only one candidate on the ballot or a second choice that isn’t very palatable. As long as elections are not competitive, a lot of voters will struggle to find a reason to show up. Even communist Russia had elections, but Russian voters only had one choice.
The second thing that seems to impact voting, says Patterson, is whether voters feel a duty to vote. Citizens who sense that voting is a duty are more likely to turnout, even when the stakes are low.
Duty has often been a predictor of turnout, but it does not receive the same attention as other psychological orientations or as much attention as preference about who wins the election. However, as Blais and Achen point out, both duty and preference matter, a lot.
Patterson goes on to note that individuals who are religious, conservative or associate with the Tea Party are more inclined to express a duty to vote.
Should we be surprised, then, that Republicans cleaned up in the 2014 mid-terms? Driven by duty to vote–whether due to religious or political preferences that encourage civic participation–more of the Republican Party base turned out.
Still, says Patterson, this doesn’t fully explain why people don’t vote. Worse, the people who need to be pushed to vote–to feel a duty–are unlikely to hear it from a source they care about.
These results only hint at what we think may ail turnout in Utah, but they are worth further exploration. As Achen and Blais state, “some people construe voting in ethical terms, and that those who do so are more likely to vote and also less inclined to pay attention to non-ethical considerations.” What “non-ethical considerations” mean is the lack of competitiveness and the resulting lack of choices that voters routinely face in Utah. And the individuals who need to struggle the most with these “non-ethical considerations” to improve Utah’s poor turnout record are probably those who are least likely to hear from some source they consider authoritative that it is their “duty” to vote.
What might this mean for future elections and…Count My Vote?
A few predictions:
- Conservatives (and Republicans) will continue to do well during mid-terms, which will allow them to maintain their hold on the US House of Representatives (I don’t see any impact in the long or short term on the Utah House. Utah demographics just don’t agree with the Utah Democrat Party).
- When elections are more competitive and higher profile–such as in the Fourth Congressional race between Mia Love and Doug Owens–turnout will increase. But can the Democrats come up with a candidate that will threaten an incumbent Love’s star power? Doubtful. Only the next two years will show.
- Presidential elections, especially competitive ones, will bump up voter turnout, especially among voters who aren’t driven by duty. This will help Democrats pick up votes from people who are generally less conservative and will force Republicans up for reelection during presidential elections to the center.
- Count My Vote won’t impact voter turnout. While more candidates will appear on the ballot under Utah’s new election regime, it’s unlikely that voters will perceive the races as any more competitive than previously. We’ll see a lot more television and radio advertising, but only in the primary. Because the primary will still put just one Republican and one Democrat on the general election ballot (allowing that there may need to be multiple rounds of primaries to get a candidate who can obtain a majority vote since more than two candidates will be able to appear on the primary ballot), November elections will look pretty much the same way they do now–albeit with candidates that look less like Utah Republicans.