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Utah on pace for record voter turnout, state elections leaders predict

FILE: In Salt Lake County, instructions on the ballot tell voters to use blue or black ink to select their choices. Photo: Becky Bruce, KSL NewsRadio

SALT LAKE CITY — Voter turnout could break records across the country this year and Utah may be no exception. 

State elections officials say while predicting voter turnout is an art that involves a lot of science, all signs point to more Utahns than ever voting this year. 

In the presidential election four years ago, 1,152,369 Utahns voted.

“I think we’re going to going to go up by almost 300,000 this time,” Utah Director of Elections, Justin Lee, told KSL.

The state uses the number of active registered voters to compare the turnout from election year to election year, versus the total number people in the state who are eligible to vote. In 2016 it was 82%.

“We wouldn’t be surprised if turnout exceeded 90% this year,” Weber County Clerk Ricky Hatch said.

Lee and Hatch both say that predicting voter turnout and behavior is difficult because each election is different. 

“It’s quite hard because each election is different depending on what’s on the ballot, what’s happening in the news, and sometimes even the weather,” Hatch said.

Predicting voter turnout in Utah 

According to Lee, Utah hosts nearly 1.7 million active registered voters this year, which means that’s how many ballots they’ve sent out. As of Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, county clerks had processed 462,128 ballots, meaning that’s how many by-mail votes have been cast with eight days until the election. That is almost half of the total votes cast from 2016.

“Which is huge,” Lee said. “We never see this many ballots this early, which is great.” 

Read more: Explore our interactive map showing how many Utah ballots have been processed

State officials don’t know how many ballots were processed at this point in the last presidential election. And they don’t have a formula to predict what total turnout will be based on these percentages. But further evidence suggests that because Utah has also seen increased voter registrations this year, turnout will naturally go up.

“Even if just match the percentages we’ve had in the past, we’ll have the highest number of voters,” Lee said. 

State elections leaders say what’s on the ballot is the biggest driver of turnout. On top of an intense presidential race this year, Utah also has several constitutional amendments, an election to fill Rob Bishop’s District 1 Congressional seat, and a hotly contested race in District 4 between Rep. Ben McAdams, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Burgess Owens.

This year is also the first year ever every county in Utah will vote by mail, which has been shown to increase voter turnout.

“In 2016 we only had 21 [of 29] counties voting by mail.” Lee says.

The role of the pandemic

It’s not conclusive whether more people are voting by mail because they’re home more or because they fear virus safety at the polls. Hatch, however, does think by-mail voting is higher because of the pandemic. But he says Utah could also see fewer people voting that way at the same time. 

“More people also anticipate voting in person, not because of the pandemic but because they’ve heard headlines and heard concerns about security,” he said. 

While state elections leaders don’t exactly know whether the pandemic is driving turnout, they don’t think it’s hurting it. Lee says they had concerns during the primary election in June that turnout would be down because of Covid. That didn’t happen.

“We were completely wrong, we had record breaking turnout,” he said. “It’s hard to say whether it was Covid driving that or the presidential race or whatever it was on the ballot, but it doesn’t seem to be negatively impacting our voting at all.”

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