In a year when Utah elected the first black, Republican woman (and a Mormon, to boot) to Congress , the Beehive State still only managed to turn out an estimated 40% of registered voters to the polls. That’s about 27% of the total population of the state weighing in on who should represent Utah to the US Congress, the Utah Legislature, county councils, and commissions.
In other words, only one in four people in our state are contributing to selecting the politicians who will vote on taxes, regulate business, fund roads and education, and otherwise create the laws that we all must live under.
Sure, a lot of Utah’s population is under 18, meaning that a higher percentage of our state can’t vote yet. That lowers the percentage of eligible voters, making it look like fewer people vote than other states. But 40% of registered voters showing up to vote is still low and embarrassing.
It’s not for lack of effort by Utah’s elected officials. Prior to becoming his becoming Governor, I saw a lot more of Gary Herbert than I ever did then Governor Jon Huntsman. He appeared in commercials in his bathrobe, brushing his teeth, picking up the paper on the doormat…and encouraging everyone to get out and vote.
In this recent election cycle, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has continued the effort, crisscrossing the state to encourage voting and appearing in commercials talking to, well, everyone from costumed Salt Lake Comic Con attendees to goats about voting. Entertaining and fun, they are a good reminder: not enough of us vote (let alone recognize the LG, the winner of the First Annual Bipartisan Benolition Derby. C’mon, folks. How do you not recognize a Republican politician who shows up in public wearing an Arrested Development t-shirt? With a Democrat?!).
Maybe it’s time we made some changes in how we do things. Here are two changes to state law that I think might go a long way to getting people registered and voting.
1. Voter registration semi-mandatory when you take your Driver’s License test
It’s a rite of passage, I know, so let’s make it beneficial to the state rather than just allowing a lot of drivers on the road who are going to raise insurance rates and cruise State Street. You want that license? You have to fill out your voter registration and vote-by-mail form at the same time.
Yes, I recognize that you are already asked if you want to vote when you get your driver’s license. But why not make it be semi-mandatory? And why not extend the requirement to 16 and 17 year olds, as well? No, they won’t vote until they are 18, but that vote-by-mail ballot will arrive at their home when they do turn 18, regardless of whether they have remembered to go get registered.
But what about people who don’t want to vote? Or don’t want to be registered to vote?
Let’s require that they be deliberate about not participating. Let’s require them to make a decision to deliberately not receive a ballot. When they show up, they have to deliberately opt out of receiving a ballot and registering to vote. If it’s deliberate, people will start to consider whether they want to give up a right that they passively give up anyway when they fail to show up to vote, fail to register, or fail to sign up for the convenience of having a ballot sent to their home. And if, when presented with the opportunity, they still want to remove their name from the voters list, their name can be removed.
(If I had my druthers, we would also make them complete–and pass–the same test that immigrants have to take before they get their citizenship. Since I don’t want a riot of angry teens outside my house, though, or toilet paper dangling from my trees, we’ll leave that suggestion for another day, though I hear that an enterprising state legislator from Ephraim is already working on such a bill).
2. Vote-by-mail for the whole state
While we’re debating whether it’s good public policy to maximize voter registration, let’s at least make a change that is likely to maximize turnout–and no, I’m not talking about measuring elections based on which candidate has the most likes on their Facebook page. I’m talking about switching the entire state to vote-by-mail.
Oregon does it, and while there’s a lot of things that I think Oregon does that are just plain wrong (namely, not letting me pump my own gas. There are a lot of ways to create jobs, but this counts as one of the dumbest of them), but when it comes to voter turnout the Beaver State is leading the nation. Back in 1981, the Oregon legislature decided to put the whole state on vote-by-mail. The results have been consistently high voter turnout of 8.5 percentage points above the national average. This election, when turnout was pretty dismal nationwide, Oregon boasted a turnout rate of about 70%.
Why not here in Utah, too? We’ve already seen that Utah counties that go to full vote by mail have higher turnout. Why not put the whole state on the system?