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Young voters in Utah underrepresented in 2022 midterms, census report finds

SALT LAKE CITY — Despite being the youngest state in the nation by median age, young voters were underrepresented in Utah during the 2022 midterm elections, according to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The report, which the bureau conducts after each national election, examines the voting-age population in each state, and found Utah has the largest share of adults, 25.5%, between the ages of 18 and 29. The District of Columbia has the second-largest share of young adults, with 25.1%.

But in Utah, young people between the ages of 18 and 29 accounted for just about 12% of the voters in 2022, meaning young voters in the state were underrepresented by 13.9% — the biggest gap in the nation, by far.

“This is, in part, discouraging, because we’re seeing, nationally, more and more young people are voting,” said Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics. “They’re voting at higher rates at this young age than previous generations. But in Utah, we see this huge gap between those who are of age and those who are voting.”

The most obvious culprit for the gap in representation is that a significant share of young adults who permanently reside in the Beehive State spend 18 months to two years on proselytizing missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to Cotti.

While most missionaries can vote using absentee ballots in Utah, that “automatically takes a chunk of people and it makes it more difficult to vote at that time,” she said.

While other states have a larger share of military service members who serve overseas, Cotti said there are often programs in place to encourage service members to vote — something not formally in place for religious missionaries from Utah.

The explanation for the lack of young voter turnout could also extend to broader trends impacting politics nationally. At the start of the current Congress in early 2023, the median age of U.S. senators was 65.3, according to the Pew Research Center, and the vast majority of senators belonged to the Silent and Boomer generations — those born between 1928-1945 and 1946-1964, respectively. The House is younger, on average, at about 57.9 years, but nearly half of representatives were born before 1964 and only 53 of the 435 voting members were born in 1981 or later.

When it comes to presidential politics, President Joe Biden, 81, and former President Donald Trump, 77, would each be the oldest president elected in U.S. history if they win in November.

Zac Wilson, chairman of the Utah Young Republicans and a recent congressional candidate, has long been interested in politics, but said many in his age cohort don’t share that passion, in part, because they don’t see themselves reflected in their elected leaders. At 29, he staked his campaign for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District seat on his potential to be the youngest Republican in Congress, and came within 14 votes of advancing out of convention to the GOP primary.

“I get the sense that if you look at the front-runners of either major party right now, I think young people are disenchanted somewhat with both,” he said.

Republican delegates in Utah also tend to skew older than the electorate at large, but Wilson said he was “blown away” by the reception he received from young delegates who were excited to have someone closer to their age running.

“It was a total breath of fresh air to have someone that understood their plight and their situation,” he said. “Democrats have done way better at bringing young people into their party as far as politicians … and so I think that’s got to be a wake-up call for the rest of the country. If you can’t engage younger people to run, the Republican Party will look less and less in touch.”

Wilson said traditional Republican values, such as small government and deregulation, could be winning messages to attract more young voters. When it comes to social and culture war issues that have been flashpoints in politics recently — and on which young voters generally favor liberal policies — he said the GOP should deemphasize federal involvement and leave the issues to state and local politicians.

“I think they would perform a lot better at the national level because young people are more progressive when it comes to social issues,” he said. “I think the party is going to have to become at least slightly more libertarian from a national level and say, ‘Hey, we care deeply about this stuff,’ but handle it at the state level. That’s going to win over young voters.”

Young voters have trended more liberal than older voters in recent elections — Generation Z voters broke for Biden by 24 points in 2020, according to Pew — and while that does not mean all or most young people in Utah would vote for Democrats, the same trend can be seen playing out in the Beehive State.

“In Utah, they aren’t quite as liberal as we like to suppose young voters are, automatically,” Cotti said. “That said, we are seeing changes with younger voters. They are — especially Gen Z and those younger millennials — they’re less likely to be as religious, less likely to be as conservative as their parents. But that only makes an impact on the election if they turn out.”

Contributing: Heather Peterson

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