During the municipal elections of 2007, a student at Weber State University ran for Fruit Heights City Council; after an exhausting campaign and slow election returns, he went to bed thinking he had lost a close election, but the next morning Michael Anderson woke to find had had edged out the next contender by 12 votes, 900 to 888.
"It was pretty intense there for a little while," Anderson said.
Intense isn't the word that comes to mind for most municipal elections where Anderson's results are not all that uncommon. Few citizens turn out; elections are won and lost by the merest of margins. Officials who touch our daily lives get little attention to get into office.
"Municipal elections are often more important than presidential elections," Anderson said. "Your municipal government is the most intrusive government. They are the people who make sure your roads are paved; they make sure that your garbage is picked up and that clean water comes to your house and the dirty water goes away. Those are probably the most important functions we use government for every single day. I would recommend voters choose people they trust with those vital functions."
The level of responsibility of city officials doesn't seem to matter. According to the most recent U.S. census, Utah had the lowest voter turnout in the nation in the 2006 elections, and at 36.7 percent, that number is more than double those expected to report to the polls on Election Day 2009.
WSU professor of political science Thom Kuehls said Utah's young citizenry combined with a dominate political party help account for voter apathy, but the most important reason is the casual attitude most Americans hold about voting.
"In the United States, we look at voting as a right as opposed to seeing it as a duty," Kuehls said. "A duty is something you're obligated to do; a right is something you have the choice to do. I think that diminishes voter turnout. If we saw voting as a duty, we'd get higher voter turnout."
Kuehls said registered voters are much more likely to turn up at the polls, so registration is important. Recent Utah laws, however, have made registration more difficult. The legislature ended satellite registration, which allowed citizens to register in their own neighborhoods a week before an election. Mail-in registration must now be completed 30 days before an election, instead of the previous 20 days. Voters can still register in person up to 15 days before an election, but only in the county clerk's office. Each change raises the barrier to the polls just a little higher. An additional hurdle to voting might trip other voters this year. A new law, enacted in May, requires that voters bring proof of identity to the polls, such as a driver's license, a concealed weapon's permit or a passport. The list of approved documents is available on the lieutenant governor's Web site.
All of those concerns combined meant that just 7.5 percent of voters in Layton city turned up for the primary elections, and Steven Ashby the deputy city recorder expects that the general election will draw just 15 percent of voters.
"I think the candidates wish more people would vote," Ashby said. "I would say with low voter turnout, there is more potential for a candidate to swing the vote their way with just a little extra effort that is not really a reflection of what the total citizenry would really like."
Registering and casting a ballot might present some challenges, but getting informed in Utah is getting easier. Voters can go online to elections.utah.gov and find the "voter information link." By entering their name, birth date, county and house number, voters will find their polling location, a link to all the candidates' websites as well as a sample ballot specific to their municipality.
Elected two year ago, City Councilman Michael Anderson is currently in law school, but said as he has received a real education as a councilman about a variety of issues including law, engineering, parks and reaction management and development. He's also had a civics lesson on the importance of each ballot.
"When we vote, we can avoid a lot of the political unrest that happens in non-democratic processes, and I think it's the best way to stay American."
Voting is a right and a duty that every eligible citizen should exercise in every election beginning in the municipal elections on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009.