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SALT LAKE CITY — Voter turnout was up for this year's primary election over 2016, especially among Republicans, but it's going to be tough for that trend to continue through the November general election.
"Generally, we don't see as high of a turnout during a midterm year as we would a presidential year so we don't get really caught up in trying to compare one to the other," state Elections Director Justin Lee said.
But he said more Utahns did vote in this year's June 26 primary election, about 29 percent compared to 24 percent in 2016. Among active Republicans, the turnout was even better — 51 percent this year to 38 percent two years ago.
Lee said the boost likely came from conducting a largely vote-by-mail election in all but two of the state's 29 counties, and from having former 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney on the ballot in the race for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate.
"It's always hard to say for certain. But it's probably a combination," Lee said.
As only Carbon and Emery counties ran traditional elections this year, he said 90 percent of primary voters statewide mailed in their ballots rather than going to the polls.
Romney's successful primary race against state Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, attracted national attention in part because Romney has been a harsh critic of President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican.
It was Utah's hotly contested three-way presidential race between Trump, Democrat Hillary Clinton and independent candidate Evan McMullin two years ago that helped the state hit a historically high 82 percent voter turnout.
There was no presidential primary in Utah in 2016. Instead, Republicans and Democrats held presidential party caucus votes in March. The 82 percent turnout in November of that year was the highest in decades.
That's going to be hard to top, Lee said. Even when Romney was on the ballot in 2012 as a presidential candidate against Democratic President Barack Obama, turnout only hit 80 percent.
A more reasonable goal might be to surpass a more comparable election. Lee said the last time there was a statewide race for U.S. Senate on the ballot was 2010, when turnout reached 51 percent.
"We'll see what it looks like this fall," he said. "This is kind of untested waters."
That's because in addition to this November matchup between Romney and the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, voters will also be asked whether they support several key issues.
Those include an initiative legalizing medical marijuana and a non-binding question intended to advise lawmakers whether or not Utahns want the gas tax raised by 10 cents a gallon to help provide more money for public schools.
"There are also significant questions on the ballot in November that have and will continue to motivate people to vote," said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Perry said the initiatives, which also deal with Medicaid expansion and redistricting, and the question on the November ballot "are about issues that Utahns care about. And because they care about them, I think they're going to show up and vote."
Also driving turnout, Perry said, will be the candidates on the ballot, especially Romney and Wilson, who are seeking the Senate seat held by retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
"For Mitt Romney going into this next election, the last thing he wants is for people to think it's in the bag and he doesn't need every vote. Because he does," Perry said. He said Wilson will also be urging Utahns to get out and vote.
"I think that will be a theme that we hear from both of the candidates," he said.
But it's the ballot issues that may make a difference in November's turnout.
"These are not just voting with your party anymore," Perry said. "These are issues where you've got to see how you feel in your heart and your mind and vote that way. You can't just pick straight ticket on any of these questions."