Opinion by Ronald Mortensen /Oct 10/2016

In 2014, Utah had the third lowest voter turnout rate in the nation with only 28.8% of eligible adults voting—577,973 voters out of the estimated 2,004,283 Utahns age 18 or older.  Two years earlier with Mitt Romney on the ballot, only 55% of eligible Utahns voted—13th lowest in the nation.

For years, Utah officials have tried to increase voter turnout through a high profile Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Utah’s Democracy, by exhortations from the state’s predominant religion, by allowing people to vote by mail and by a pilot program that allows people to register to vote on election-day.  Despite this, turnout rates remain well below the 66% level attained in the 1980s when Utah had one of the highest voter participation rates in the nation.

Utah’s single-party dominance is often blamed for the low voter turnout—why register and why vote if you know in advance who is going to win?  However, another contributing factor is the way campaigns are run in Utah.

A substantial number of races are still determined by delegates at political party conventions.  When a primary election is required to select a candidate, political parties, candidates and campaign consultants all purchase lists of registered voters.  The campaigns then focus uniquely on registered voters who have a history of voting in their party’s primary elections, effectively ignoring all other registered and unregistered voters.  Thus, only a small minority of registered voters are encouraged to vote by a given candidate while the vast majority of eligible voters are ignored.

In a one party state such as Utah, once the Republican candidate has been determined, either at the convention or by an extremely low-turnout primary election, the winner of the general election is known in all but a handful of races.  So, the vast majority of citizens have little reason to vote in the general election and candidates have little reason to talk about issue of interest to the general public or to encourage a large voter turnout.

This results in a continuing downward spiral in voter turnout in primary and general elections since only the most active, party affiliated voters are encouraged by candidates to vote.  When new voters are added to the voter list, they are largely ignored because they haven’t previously voted in multiple elections.  When existing registered voters fail to vote in several election cycles, they are dropped from the list of active voters targeted by the various campaigns.  Therefore, over time, fewer and fewer people vote in either primary or general elections as voter targeting constantly excludes more and more people.

So, what would happen if candidates and professional campaign managers did not have access to the voter list but had to try to convince all eligible voters to vote for a particular candidate?  Would candidates moderate their messages to appeal to more people rather than telling a limited number of carefully targeted voters exactly what they want to hear and then getting them out to vote?  Would it force candidates to appeal to a wider voter population since they generally would not know who supported which party, who was registered to vote, who consistently voted and who didn’t vote?

Of course, current elected officials and those in the political campaign business strongly oppose placing any restrictions on the sale of the voter list since the current system allows them to maintain their power and influence by indirectly suppressing voter turnout.  Their only concern is winning, not involving the maximum number of people in the process.

Given all of the voter lists that the state has sold and the numerous campaign management firms that have this data, it would take several election cycles to determine the impact that stopping the sale of the voter lists would have on voter turnout.  But since nothing else is working and voter turnout continues to decline, what is there to lose?