SALT LAKE CITY — Though state election officials didn’t expect this year’s election to draw a record-breaking turnout, official results released Tuesday tell a different story.
Canvass results of at least 35,850 more tallied ballots brought statewide turnout to 80.4 percent of active registered voters, exceeding 2012’s turnout of 80.15 percent, when Utah-favorite Mitt Romney was on the ballot.
That surpassed State Election Director Mark Thomas’ previous expectation that Utah’s statewide turnout wouldn’t exceed 75 percent. He anticipated a lower voter turnout than in 2012, predicting Utahns may be feeling less inspired and more conflicted about their presidential options.
“This election certainly surprised us,” he said. But he wasn’t complaining.
Thomas pointed out some rural counties — included Grand, Sevier and Wayne — neared or surpassed 90 percent returns.
“Those are just huge numbers, where you have eight or nine out of 10 (registered voters) participating in the election,” he said. “Those are great numbers for Utah.”
Thomas said statewide results won’t be certified until Monday, and several counties still hadn’t reported their canvass results for Tuesday’s 4:30 p.m. update, so Utah’s turnout rates have nowhere to go but up.
While Utah’s history records show higher statewide turnout percentages — such as 89 percent in 1960, when Richard Nixon ran against John F. Kennedy — Thomas said Utah has seen an all-time high of total voters casting ballots. This year, more than 1.1 million of Utah’s roughly 1.4 million registered voters participated in the election.
And in certain counties, clerks say they’ve never seen such high return rates.
Final canvass results brought Davis County’s turnout to more than 88 percent of active registered voters, 11 percent higher than the county’s 2012 returns.
“We’ve looked back into the ’80s, ’60s, ’70s, and we’re not seeing a higher turnout, ever,” said Davis County Clerk Curtis Koch. “We believe it’s the highest Davis County has ever had. That’s pretty exciting.”
In Salt Lake County, turnout topped 84 percent. Even though that didn’t surpass 2012’s 87 percent turnout, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said the sheer number of voters who participated shattered previous years’ records.
“It was definitely record-breaking in terms of the number of voters,” Swensen said. “There were over 427,000 compared to 386,000 in 2012.”
Thomas said this year’s returns were likely boosted by the fact that 21 of Utah’s 29 counties opted to hold vote-by-mail elections this year.
“We still have some work to do, but the Legislature has made if very easy to vote,” he said. “We have made it very convenient.”
But with this year’s high turnout, some counties faced some unique challenges.
In Utah’s most populated county, Salt Lake County, some voters battled long lines on election night, and the Utah GOP accused Swensen of “forcing” vote by mail and not planning enough vote centers for voters who prefer to vote in person.
Swensen said she tried to add more polling places when early voting returns showed low turnout, but state law prohibited adding more vote centers so close to the election. She acknowledged that there are some lessons to be learned, but overall she’s encouraged by this year’s voter engagement.
“I’m very apologetic … to people who had to wait in line,” she said, “but overall we’re thrilled the turnout was as good as it was. It was definitely a learning experience, but we’ll learn how to improve and do better next time.”