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Voter Turnout Depressed by Apathy

Just under 56 percent of the voting-age population voted in the 2016 U.S. election – one of the lowest totals among OECD countries. Within the U.S., Utah ranked 39th of the 50 states in turnout, and our turnout has declined precipitously over the last few decades. These abysmal national and state numbers have long thought to be caused by too strict and inconvenient voting regulations. Utah has already implemented many of the mainstream proposals to raise voter turnout by making voting as easy and convenient as possible – offering things like online registration, early voting, and vote by mail – yet low numbers persist.

There are several other proposals out there to increase voter participation, some more serious than others. For instance, some have proposed passing out food or some other goodie to those who have voted as a way to entice people to the polls – sort of like a Labor Day sale at the local furniture store. Other, more serious ideas include making voting day a national holiday so work isn’t as much of an issue and so the day can be filled with community events geared around voting. Some of the OECD countries that lead in voter turnout have mandatory voting, an idea that is not likely to gain traction in the U.S. any time soon.

One idea that may soon be implemented in Utah is automatic voter registration. Currently, when you get or renew your driver’s license, you can choose to also register to vote. It’s a simple process because everything you need to prove your identity to register to vote is also required to get a license to drive. Proponents of automatic registration would change it from opt-in to opt-out. This way, many more would be registered, and when people moved, their voter registration would update along with their license. A bill to accomplish this was introduced in the 2017 state legislative session. HB 159 passed the House and a Senate committee but wasn’t voted on in the full Senate before the session ended. No doubt it will come before the Legislature again.

Automatic registration may or may not improve Utah’s voter participation. Only a handful of states have automatic registration, and most of their laws are very recent, so there’s not a lot of data yet to measure its effect on turnout. However, looking at the reasons why people choose not to vote and sometimes not to even register to vote in the first place reveals that perhaps policymakers are missing the biggest piece of the puzzle: Maybe it’s not convenience that potential voters need. Maybe they just don’t care all that much.

The U.S. Census Bureau released data on the 2008 election, and the No. 1 reason registered voters gave for not voting was “not interested/did not like candidates.” No. 2 was “don’t know.” These are people who did actually take the time to register but then didn’t show up on Election Day. The picture is even bleaker with those who didn’t register to vote in the first place. By far the No. 1 reason given by these prospective voters was “not interested.”

It appears from the data that apathy is what keeps people away from the voting booth each November, rather than the inconvenience of voting or registering. Policymakers’ efforts to make voting easier may improve the experience for those who already vote, but it may not have the effect on everyone else that is intended. Instead, trying to understand what makes citizens apathetic toward the political process should be the focus of those interested in bringing more people to the polls.

Dig Deeper:

Pew Research: U.S. Voter Turnout Trails Most Developed Countries

Salt Lake Tribune: Voter Turnout Among Worst in the Nation

Project Vote: Youth Preregistration Bill Passes in Utah

Washington Post: Why 50 Million Americans Won’t Vote

Harvard Department of Government: Five Studies on the Causes and Consequences of Voter Turnout

Wall Street Journal: Voter Turnout in Each State

Utah Legislature: 2017 House Bill 159

New York Times: Oregon Voter Registration

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