Shake off the cynicism. A better Utah awaits.
By Kirk Jowers
This is a tale of our city. It's (mostly) the best of times, and (on one issue) the worst of times here in Utah's state capital.
On one hand, we live in an incredibly vibrant place. We have unparalleled access to outdoor recreation, the arts, booming businesses, and a world-class research, Pac-12, BCS-busting university. Nowhere else in the nation can you leave your city office and find "the greatest snow on earth" within a 40-minute drive. The Downtown Rising project, including the new City Creek development, will do wonders to revitalize our city center. Forbes magazine has repeatedly named Utah its "Best State for Business and Careers." For the past six years, Utahns have led the country in volunteering. These aren't the only areas in which we're on top nationally—the University of Utah has been ranked first in the country for start-up businesses, first for its health-care system and third for green power on a college campus. All of these factors contribute to making Salt Lake City a great place to live.
Utahns love what the state has to offer, and contribute tremendously to their communities (and to Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns), but they don't have the same passion when it comes to actually going to the polls and engaging in the political process. Simply put, political participation in our state is dismally low. Utah once led the nation in voter participation, but now regularly sits at the bottom. A key reason for this decline is that Utah is the only state in the nation that has not created a way for good candidates to get on the ballot without going through a political convention where narrow interests can more easily control the outcome. The U.S. Elections Project at George Mason University ranked Utah 45th in the nation for voter turnout after the 2010 midterm elections, with a mere 34.3 percent of Utahns voting in that election—and 45th was our best finish over the past few elections. According to the Utah Foundation, Utah historically had high voter-participation rates, but our numbers have been dropping consistently for the past 50 years. For example, 78.3 percent of eligible Utahns voted in 1960, but that number dropped to 51.6 percent in 1996 and has hovered around 50 percent in presidential general elections ever since.
Robert M. Hutchins said, "The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment." It's time for Utahns to step it up. The Hinckley Institute of Politics' mission is to promote political and civic involvement and to engage university students in the political process. Since Robert H. Hinckley founded the Institute in 1965, we have sent more than 5,000 interns to work locally, in Washington, D.C., and in more than 35 countries around the world. Hinckley believed that "our young, best minds must be encouraged to enter politics," a great clarion call for political engagement. However, this should not be limited to university students—nor do you even have to be "young" to participate! All Utahns should become informed, engaged citizens.
We live in an age of cynicism: People are skeptical of government, and perhaps rightfully so, but no matter how frustrated we are with Congress or what we think of the Utah State Legislature's policies and message bills, simply whining about it isn't going to solve anything. We have seen what can happen when people respond to government, as illustrated by the Legislature's 2011 GRAMA debacle, and our elected officials bowed to the people's will. When citizens get involved in government, good things happen. When participation vacuums caused by public apathy arise, bad things happen because narrow, non-public-minded interests will always fill that void. The will of "we the people" will make a meaningful impact if we frequently contact our legislators and city council representatives, attend our neighborhood caucus meetings and become delegates and actually vote on Election Day, even during municipal races.
Hinckley Institute interns are great examples of participation. Every year interns work at the Utah Capitol with legislators and lobbyists during the legislative session. They serve in Gov. Gary Herbert's, Mayor Ralph Becker's and the Utah congressional delegations' offices. They work within the justice system, serve political parties, run campaigns, staff public policy firms, help nonprofit organizations and work for media entities. These students are engaging in their community and government in diverse, practical ways. Most importantly, they leave empowered because they know one person can make a difference and a group of motivated people can change the world.
If you are committed to a better Utah, then get involved now. First, we need an informed electorate, so read newspapers, listen to news programs with differing ideologies than your own and attend or tune into Hinckley Forums and other community lectures and conferences. Second, if you're not registered to vote, do so immediately. You can register online at Vote.Utah.gov. Attend your neighborhood caucus meetings this spring—the Democratic and Republican caucuses are held on March 13 and March 15, 2012, respectively. You could even consider running to be a precinct officer, county delegate or state delegate for the statewide convention in May. And then, when it comes time to vote in primary and general elections, do it! Utah is the best in almost every other category, and we should again lead the nation in voting.
Kirk Jowers is director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. He thanks Hinckley colleague Rochelle McConkie Parker for assisting with this feature.