Sherrie Swensen has this great big map that causes great big gasps of disbelief. In most of Salt Lake City, at least 40 percent of the eligible voters aren’t even registered. And you thought the state’s capital was a hotbed of activism. Not.
Which brings up two questions. Where is all the voter outreach and why should you care?
“I was astonished to find out that Salt Lake City is hugely underrepresented,” says Swensen, the Salt Lake County Clerk who’s running her own re-election campaign this year. “I think people have lost confidence in the system and think maybe their vote doesn’t make a difference.?
If you are to believe Carrie Dickson, people have lost confidence in the Democratic county clerk. “We have all these programs to register people but no follow-through,” says Dickson, Swensen’s Republican opponent. “No plan or execution. Everything points to the possibility that she’s making it as hard as possible for people to cast their ballots.?
Dickson is what you might call a county GOP insider whose husband is the party’s vice chair. She contends that the county is dealing with an inaccurate database and that Swensen is to blame, whether by incompetence or partisanship.
In fact, Dickson says she’s discovered that a full one-third of the county’s data is wrong. She knows this because she’s one of those Republicans who “have this tendency to want to have everything lined up in neat, little orderly things.?
In other words, they check out voters during campaign calls. So do the Democrats. Inevitably, they find that people have moved, died or something. It’s a database nightmare. And it’s not something that Swensen’s clueless about. But now, running for her fifth term in office, Swensen has to own everyone’s problems'or dance her way out of them.
So, back to turnout. In 1992, just two years after Swensen took office, she could claim that turnout reached an all-time high'84.5 percent. “It was neat,” Swensen says.
And indeed, she could pat herself on the back for executing an outreach effort that discovered registration forms hidden beneath counters and took them to high schools, senior centers and community events in her trusty “Clerk Mobile.” And, despite all of this, voter participation continued to shrink.
It’s not all bad news, though. The 2004 presidential election brought out 76 percent of the county’s voters.
No matter what might keep people from voting, politics is the culprit during campaign season. Swensen once heard a legislator say voting shouldn’t be too easy, she says.
“That’s because they’re elected by those people who are able to find out where to vote and who have the time to vote,” Swensen says. “If you open it up more widely, I think they’re concerned because the legislators have been elected by people who are the status quo.?
Rep. Neil Hansen, D-Ogden, feels her frustration. He’s been stumping for Election Day registration for a couple of years now. The first year, his bill never got out of committee. Then, there were the clerks from Weber, Davis and Utah counties who thought the whole thing was just too cumbersome and, well, too much damned work.
Hansen has the dubious distinction of presiding over a low-voter-turnout district. People move in and out a lot, making it hard to stay registered in the right place. Election Day voting, he thinks, could boost his voter base from some 3,000 people to maybe 9,000.
Six states have instituted Election Day registration, boosting turnout, but Hansen worries that Utah’s GOP majority will see high turnout favoring Democrats. That’s the conventional wisdom, although the ’04 presidential election saw something different.
And Swensen’s Republican opponent says she’s not worried about turnout. Heck, the GOP outnumbers Democrats 2-to-1, so you’d think more voters would reflect the same.
Dickson wants to ramp up technology'this, despite the fearsome specter of those Diebold machines'and even register people online. And what about letting them vote any old place they want? If technology’s so good, she asks, why can’t we track a person’s vote regardless of location?
In the same breath, she’s not too sure you could verify Election Day registrants fast enough. Sigh.
Swensen keeps chugging along, sometimes in her Clerk Mobile, and has opened 10 satellite locations for early voting. She’s also been encouraging permanent mail-in voting to help alleviate long lines and maybe even skepticism about electronic voting machines.
But it’s skepticism about the whole process that someone needs to address. Swensen often hears voters complain about being registered for jury duty at the same time as voting. “It frightens the elderly,” she says. Some people have told her they won’t register because they’d be called up for jury duty.
Excuses, excuses. If the dead can vote, you’d think the elderly could. Dickson claims she’s found many names of the deceased on voter rolls. No word on whether they’ve actually voted, though.
Democrat or Republican, the challenge is to make voting relevant. “We can do everything,” says Swensen, “And if they just don’t want to vote, there’s nothing more we can do.” 3