- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah voter turnout in this year’s election reached historic levels, possibly fueled by the state’s surprising turn in the spotlight as a presidential toss-up state.

Final results unveiled Monday show 82 percent of the state’s 1.4 million active registered voters cast ballots in November - narrowly surpassing the highest previous high mark of the last 30-years history set in 1988. The turnout eclipses the 80 percent who voted in 2012, when Mitt Romney was the Republican presidential nominee.

The mark still pales when comparing voter turnout figures from a half century ago: Nearly 90 percent of Utah voters cast ballots in the 1960 and 1964 elections, state figures show.

“That’s great news for the state of Utah,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said about the 2016 turnout. “It probably helps when the state becomes somewhat of a swing state. We got a lot more attention that we normally would in a presidential election and clearly that helped drive turnout.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump ended up easily winning Utah with 45.5 percent of the vote. But widespread dislike for him among the state’s mostly Mormon voters during the campaign led some pundits and pollsters to label the Republican stronghold a toss-up state, something unheard of in recent history.

Independent candidate Evan McMullin surged in popularity as an alternative in the deeply conservative state where many people bristled at Trump’s brash demeanor and his comments about women, minorities and Muslims. But a final push by Republican leaders urging voters to ‘come home’ and warning them a vote for McMullin could help Clinton win seems to have made an impact.

McMullin, a Mormon and former CIA agent, finished third behind Democrat Hillary Trump and Clinton with 21.5 percent, the most by a third-party candidate since Ross Perot in 1992.

Another factor that likely contributed to robust turnout was mail-in voting in more than two-thirds of the state, a first for a presidential election, Cox said.

Turnout was higher in each of the 21 counties that sent mail-in ballots compared to the nine counties that stuck to traditional voting. Turnout was 90 percent or higher in four counties: Kane, Grand, Sevier and Uintah. None of the counties that used traditional voting surpassed 80 percent.

“We get a more informed voter as well,” Cox said about mail-in voting. “They have an opportunity to research what’s on it.”

He predicted the Legislature will keep mail-in voting while acknowledging his office and county recorder’s offices need to find a way to improve on several areas. Some voters waited hours to cast ballots on Election Day after many Utah counties drastically cut the number of polls as they moved to voting by mail.

Fewer people cast straight-party ballots this election, a practice still allowed by Utah and nine other states. State figures show 29 percent of voters chose this method, down from about 36 percent each of the past two presidential elections.

About two-thirds of all Democrats vote straight party compared to only about 1 in 3 Republican voters. That may reflect McMullin’s impact on the election, Cox said.

Cox defended the validity of Utah’s election results amid renewed questions nationwide spurred by Trump’s tweet over the weekend suggesting millions of people voted illegally. Trump didn’t offer any evidence. Cox said security measures before the election and audits after the election make him feel confident the results are valid.

Cox, a frequent critic of Trump during the campaign, said it’s unfortunate the president-elect made the comments without evidence.

“It does erode confidence in what is the bedrock foundation of our democratic republic,” said Cox, a Republican. “It’s dangerous. I hope we can tone down on that rhetoric moving forward and stick with the facts.”

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