Rexburg has the lowest local election turnout rate in a sample of college towns in the Mountain West area, at 6.7% of all voting-age residents or 20.9% of non-student voting-age residents, according to an investigation by Scroll.
College towns often have lower voter turnout than the national average, in part because university students rarely register to vote in a town they live in temporarily.
However, that doesn’t explain the gap between Rexburg and other college towns.
College town voting turnouts
Scroll gathered voter turnout data for the most recent mayor election of nine college towns in nearby areas, from eastern Washington to Montana and Utah. Of the nine towns, Rexburg has the lowest turnout, even if we assume that no students will vote and remove them from the population.
Matt Miles, a professor of political science at BYU-Idaho who specializes in American and comparative political behavior, isn’t surprised by Rexburg’s low turnout.
“Most people in the community vote Republican, and there are rarely non-Republicans on the ballot,” Miles said. “There are not a lot of people proposing big changes, so (to many) it doesn’t really matter who wins or loses an election in Rexburg.”
Miles sees three factors that impact whether people vote: How easily people can vote, how intrinsically rewarding people find voting, and how much the winner matters to them. With few arguments in October’s Meet the Candidate forum and a new Idaho law this year banning students from voting with their student I.D. card, those incentives to vote are low.
But these study results aren’t guaranteed year to year. Brenda Stoor, one of the election officials for Madison County, says she never knows what to expect in any given election.
“Sometimes I think that nobody will come, and there ends up being more than I thought,” Stoor said. “Other times I think there’s an import question on our ballot and this is going to bring out a lot of people, but nobody comes in.”
Although Rexburg’s voter turnout is uniquely low, the percentage of the city that’s enrolled at BYU-I compares well to the other cities.
Two of the towns with the lowest election turnout — Rexburg, Idaho, and Provo, Utah — both host BYU campuses, and a large percentage of the residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Each year, the First Presidency of the Church sends a statement for church leaders to read to their congregations, encouraging members to vote.
“We urge Latter-day Saints to be active citizens by registering, exercising their right to vote, and engaging in civic affairs, always demonstrating Christlike love and civility in political discourse, ” reads the June statement.
Varying reports from the Church and demographic organizations estimate that 90% to 95% of Rexburg residents are Latter-day Saints. Miles finds it curious that these messages from church leaders don’t have a stronger influence in Idaho’s voting culture.
“If (it) did, voter turnout in Rexburg would be about 80%,” said Miles.
Polling places are open for same-day registration and voting from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday. Find your polling location here.
About the study
Scroll pulled data from the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho; Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho; Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana; Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington; Washington State University in Pullman, Washington; Utah State University in Logan, Utah; BYU in Provo, Utah; Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah and BYU-I.
College towns in Wyoming and eastern Oregon were omitted because their local elections run on even-numbered years, coinciding with national elections that draw more voters.
Rexburg has 39,423 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, including 9,028 people under the age of 18. Mayor Jerry Merrill won the 2019 mayoral election with 2,045 votes, according to county election data, and BYU-I reported enrollment of 20,592 students in that semester.
By dividing the vote totals from the portion of the population over 18 and not a student, we can calculate what percentage of Rexburg residents voted: 6.7%.
See the full dataset for this study here.
CORRECTION: The original story gave an inaccurate impression on the importance of voting. Some statements have been adjusted accordingly.