Utah women have seen an increase in voter turnout since 2006, though there’s still room for improvement, a new study from Utah Valley University shows.
In 1992, Utah women had the highest voter turnout in the nation at 76%. By 2006, Utah women ranked dead last in the United States for levels of voter turnout. About 48.6% of U.S. women turned out to vote, compared to only 36.8% in the state. Utah ranked 51st, after the other 49 states and Washington D.C.
That number somewhat dramatically jumped up to 11th place this year, with 60.5% of Utah women voting in 2018 as opposed to 55% nationwide, according to a research snapshot released Wednesday by the Utah Women and Leadership Project.
“We still need work, but we are making some progress,” said Susan Madsen, a UVU professor and the founding director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project.
What exactly caused the drastic changes in Utah women’s voting is still in question, Madsen said.
“People will guess, but there’s not actual data on why (women in Utah) have disengaged,” Madsen said.
A brief from 2017 shows that more women are running for office, and while there is not exact research to show the relationship between more women voting and more women being elected to office, Madsen said she believes the two are related.
“There were more women who specifically ran than in past years in city levels and in the county and state levels,” Madsen said. “More women voting — it has to be related.”
However, the political involvement does not necessarily translate to selecting candidates as part of the caucus/convention system used in Utah.
“As Utah is one of the few states that maintains a caucus convention system, delegates hold a very powerful position in choosing candidates and thereby policy direction,” the research snapshot says. “Surveys showed that delegates (both Republican and Democrat) in Utah tend to be more polarized in their positions than general voters from their respective parties. However, this discrepancy is magnified in terms of gender priorities in the Republican Party; women comprised 56% of Republican voters in 2016, and only 24% of Republican delegates were women.”
In counties like Utah County, where the candidate chosen at the Republican convention is almost guaranteed a win at the general election because of overwhelming Republican support, the lack of women delegates is concerning, Madsen said.
“Decisions are made at those levels,” Madsen said. “Important decisions. We have to, for the good of the state and our counties, get pretty equal numbers of men and women in political positions. The research is very clear that when you have a mix of gender and race, you are going to have better results. Just having men make the decisions going forward is no longer acceptable.”
One reason it’s important for women to be involved in voting and running for office, Madsen said, is that national research continues to show that money is spent differently when women are well represented in a state legislature.
When women are elected to political positions in a state legislature, more attention and money tend to be given toward efforts directed at poverty, sexual assault, domestic violence, education and healthcare.
“There really is a connection, not just in Utah, but nationally and globally to those topics being addressed more often and money being given to those when there’s women,” Madsen said.
A 2016 survey by the Utah Foundation showed that women in Utah are more concerned than men are about social issues such as homelessness, poverty, crime and the environment, the research snapshot says. The top six issues for Utah women were education, healthcare, air quality, state taxes and government spending, crime, homelessness and poverty.
“In contrast to Utah men who are, as a group, more likely to be concerned about property and sovereignty issues, Utah women’s focus on social issues is more closely aligned with Utahns’ priorities as a whole,” the research snapshot said.
One factor that causes many people to disengage, not just from voting but from anything, is if they feel their voice does not matter. That’s worrisome, Madsen said, because the research snapshot also shows that women tend to have a greater distrust in the election process overall.
“We have to keep those messages out there, that it does matter, that you can make change, that things will happen because of your voice,” Madsen said.
“We have such strong women with good voices, they may not know that sometimes,” Madsen said. “We have the potential to really shine at the top of the nation not just with women voting, but with women running for office too.”
While Utah women are well represented in leadership in nonprofit organizations, they are less likely to serve on government boards and commissions, holding only about 28% of positions.
Utah women are active in volunteerism and service, Madsen said, but making the transition to seeing themselves as leaders is a tricky.
“There’s a real transition in the state from just giving service, donating food and clothing to ‘Oh, I have a voice, I can speak, I can be a delegate, I can put a nomination in to be on the state board or commission,’” Madsen said.
Women seeing themselves as servants in society instead of leaders is part of the reason Madsen said women are more likely to need to be “tapped” to run for office.
“Women are socialized to stay in our comfort zone,” Madsen said. “So it’s powerful when you tap women and say, ‘You should do that. You have what it takes to do that.’”