Addressing Abysmal Voter Turnout

Adam Brown had an interesting post about possible causes for low voter turnout in Utah. Adam suggests three possible causes for low voter turnout but essentially dismisses the relative youth of our state as being a cause not supported by the data (and he knows data analysis). That leaves us with two possibilities (according to his post):

Second, maybe it’s because general elections have become much less competitive over the years. … If people believe that their votes are less likely to sway the outcome (either way), then they might not bother to show up.

Third, maybe it’s because Utah strengthened its caucus-convention system in the 1990s, making it harder to force a primary and easier to win in convention.

I won’t pretend to have any insights into which of those two options might be a driving factor. What I thought was interesting was that in suggesting potential solutions to the three possible causes he listed non-partisan runoffs as a potential way to address each of the two plausible causes of the problem.

This was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, back when I was doing a lot more political writing than I have been recently, the issue of increasing participation in the political process was one that I was vocal about addressing. I suggested that increasing levels of citizen participation would be akin to our nation experiencing a new birth of freedom. Second, because in lamenting the voter turnout in 2008 – where we actually had fewer people voting than in 2004 despite a larger population of eligible voters – I suggested an idea that was very much like non-partisan runoffs (a term I had not heard before today). My suggestion was that in voting districts where one party received more than 60% of the votes that party would be required to field two candidates on the ballot. That idea really would work best in a runoff system where the top two candidates, regardless of party (assuming neither got over 50% initially), then had a runoff (I would suggest the Saturday after the election). In areas where the dominant party managed to get both of their candidates in the top two it would be the equivalent of an open primary between those two candidates (after the party delegates had weighed in on which two candidates should carry the banner at their conventions).

A chart from an earlier post by Adam shows that prior to me becoming old enough to vote, Utah always had at least 60% participation or more in presidential election years and 40% participation or more  in non-presidential election years. Since that time we have never hit either of those benchmarks and our participation has gone from above average to below average (measured against the rest of the nation). That leaves me with two questions:

  1. Is this a generational issue?
    • Did people starting about my age and younger lower our participation levels by not stepping up to the plate when they came of age?
  2. What effect would an idea like non-partisan runoffs have?
    • What would it take to implement such a systemic change?
    • How could we make such a system work in conjunction with the rest of the nation where federal elections are concerned?

I would love to hear what others think about those questions because if I really thought it would make a difference and that it was possible to make such a change I would start finding ways to get the issue on our legislative agenda (not this year of course – that would be impossible).