A lot has been said about Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s town hall meeting at Brighton High School on February 9. In case you missed it, thousands of Utahns gathered to raise objections with everything from President Trump’s first few weeks in office to the proposed defunding of Planned Parenthood to Chaffetz’s role as the head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The meeting was a rowdy one as those in attendance frequently showered Chaffetz with chants of “Do your job!” and “This is what democracy looks like!”
Many left-leaning national media outlets raced to pick up the story, holding the meeting up as a model of how to channel and express frustration with the current administration. Chaffetz, on the other hand, described the evening as “bullying and an attempt at intimidation.” He claimed that the crowd included paid protesters and that “they should be somewhat embarrassed by how a lot of people handled themselves.”
Despite the extensive coverage of the event on both sides of an increasingly polarized political divide, one simple fact remains: Chaffetz won re-election in November by a nearly 50-point margin, winning close to three-quarters of the votes. For all the discontent on display at his town hall, Chaffetz seems pretty popular in the polls.
This means one of two things: either the protesters are vocal, but still a far outnumbered minority or they are more willing to protest than they are to vote. Like most things in life, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Still, changing hearts and minds in a state as deeply and consistently conservative as Utah is a tall task. Thus, the easiest way to promote a progressive agenda moving forward is to mobilize like-minded voters in future elections.
Utah has long been near the bottom when it comes to voter turnout. In the 2014 midterm elections, turnout in the Beehive State was 28.8%, good for 48th out of 50 states. 2016 was similar. Despite concurrent gubernatorial and presidential elections, just 57.8% of Utahns voted according to the United States Election Project. This was once again comfortably below the national average.
These numbers represent a unique opportunity to change the political landscape, one unequaled by marches or protests or ranting Facebook posts. In Utah, there is a growing chasm between public discourse and election results. Reversing poor voter turnout trends is the best way to bridge that divide and enact true change.
Don’t misunderstand me. I have been energized and inspired by peaceful protests in Utah and around the country. But the pragmatist in me can’t get past the fact that despite all of the emotion and everything that was at stake last November, nearly half of Utahns didn’t vote at all.
So if you find yourself dissatisfied with Rep. Chaffetz or President Trump’s executive orders or the prospect of a potential eighth term for Senator Hatch or anything else going on at a local, state or national level, let me offer a suggestion. First, make sure you are making your voice heard in the ballot box. If you already do so, dedicate time to identify friends and family who don’t and encourage them to change.
Yes — go find the silent 42.2% of this state and direct your protests to them. That must be the way forward. Your peers will likely be far more receptive than Rep. Chaffetz and if you can convince them of the importance of their vote, you are far more likely to see tangible results.