Another election season has gone by and as always hosts of politicians, celebrities, and overzealous Facebook friends urged every eligible citizen to cast their ballot and make their voice heard. They pronounced that democracy is not a spectator sport; that it is a privilege to participate in a such a valued tradition; and that the apathy of the citizenry is the greatest threat to the health of the republic today. While well-intentioned, these statements alone are not likely to create vast improvements in voter turnout that the United States needs. Voters have heard the same messages for years now and turnout remains lackluster.
It is no secret that voter turnout in the United States lags behind almost all of its peer nations: the United States ranks a dismal twenty-sixth out of thirty-two within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group composed of developed democratic nations. Presidential elections typically see 50–60 percent of the voting age population participate, and midterms closer to 40 percent. Breaking down the voting proportions by age, race, and socioeconomic status reveal even lower turnout rates for youth, minorities, and lower-income individuals. For a nation touted as a champion of the democratic process, shockingly few actually parktake in it. So how should this problem be addressed? The answer lies in several common-sense policy changes that can remove the unnecessary and outdated obstacles to voting in the United States.
Lessen Registration Barriers
The reasons cited by those who cannot or do not vote provide a good place to start. According to the Census Bureau, 12 percent of unregistered citizens of voting age in the 2016 election reported missing their state’s deadline for registration. Registration deadlines do not pose an obstacle in the fifteen states (plus D.C.) that allow election-day registration. Indeed, states with same-day voter registration see an average increase in turnout of 5 percent. Fourteen states have automatic voter registration (AVR), meaning people are automatically registered when they interact with the government for another reason, such as when acquiring a driver’s license or another form of ID. AVR can streamline the registration process, eliminating the need for paper forms or manual data entry and decreasing the possibility of human error. Citizens always have the option to opt out of registration, but few seem to do so. When Oregon became the first state to introduce automatic voter registration in 2016, only 8 percent declined registration and turnout increased relative to 2012 more than in any other state.
Critics of these measures typically cite concerns that are easily placated by voting statistics. Some fear same-day and automatic registration will lead to more instances of voter fraud, either by mistakenly registering ineligible residents or allowing purposeful in-person fraud on election day. Though voter fraud has received a recent swell of media attention, no study has yet found evidence of any coordinated or widespread fraud in a modern election. Even the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, founded by President Trump to investigate the possibility of illegal voting in 2016, produced no evidence and was subsequently disbanded less than a year after its inception. The vast majority of so-called frauds can be attributed to random human error or clerical mistakes. Implementing automatic and same-day registration would not expose the electoral system to fraud; individuals applying for drivers licenses or registering at a polling location still must provide identification and proof of address. It is no easier to impersonate someone else or lie about voter eligibility in these contexts than when registering online or by mail.
Another common objection is that automatic registration simply registers more nonvoters. However, registering previous non-voters can be a good way to drive those citizens to the polls and hopefully increase turnout. In Oregon, 66 percent of those who registered and then voted in 2016 were registered automatically. AVR also led to the inclusion of more minority voters: people of color made up 15 percent of AVR voters compared to 6 percent of non-AVR voters. Voter apathy is a poor argument against easing registration barriers because easing those barriers will help diminish apathy towards participating in the democratic process.
Expand Early Voting
Of those who registered but still did not vote in 2016, 14 percent blamed a busy schedule. Absentee ballots and early voting can lessen this burden, especially for individuals working multiple jobs or caring for family members who cannot afford to put aside their responsibilities to get to a polling station. A staggering 40 percent of ballots in 2016 were cast with alternative voting methods like these, yet they are still not universally available. Thirteen states lack an early voting option and twenty states require an excuse to be submitted before requesting an absentee ballot, an unnecessary condition that undermines the intended convenience of the absentee ballot. It seems reasonable to believe that expanding early voting opportunities will generate increased turnout not just in high-profile presidential elections, but also local and state elections.
Critics of early voting object that votes cast weeks in advance miss the end of the campaign season and therefore important information from and about the candidates. Crucially, though, the choice is the voter’s: if a person feels secure in their decision, they can cast a ballot at their convenience. If not, they can still wait until Election Day. Suggestions to the contrary attempt to delegitimize certain citizens’ votes by implying that more timely and maximally informed votes are more important. Voting is an individual choice and better early voting options will reflect that reality.
An Election Weekend
Election Day poses another problem, always falling on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November since 1845, when the tradition was established by Congress. Why Tuesday? Sundays were out of the question in a deeply religious Christian society. Lacking the transportation technology of modern times, voters often took a day to travel to cast their ballot in the nearest city, so Mondays were out as well. Wednesdays were market days in many cities and so elections fell to Tuesdays.
The America of today is a far cry from the America of 1845. Traveling to polling locations is generally a matter of minutes rather than days, markets are no longer a weekly occurrence, and Tuesdays are certainly no longer the most advantageous day to hold elections. Workers, especially those depending on an hourly wage, cannot always afford to take time off to go to polling locations that have operating hours similar to most jobs. Voters are faced with the unfortunate choice of earning money for their families or making their voices heard, and socioeconomic standing often necessitates the former to the detriment of the latter. The economic realities experienced by everyday Americans should not undermine the health of American democracy.
Instead, elections should be held over the course of a weekend, with extended hours that provide the flexibility voters need. Those who must abstain from voting on a Sunday for religious reasons can vote on Saturday and vice versa. A national election holiday has also been proposed to address this issue, but a weekend provides even greater flexibility without the loss of a day’s pay or the detriment to the economy as a whole. Though extending elections over two days rather than one may create some additional logistical hurdles, such a system would also be more conducive to voter turnout—and the United States should embrace that. Hard-working Americans would no longer face a choice between contributing to their family or to their state and country.
Challenges to Implementation
These are not new ideas. The Weekend Voting Act has been introduced in Congress in different forms four times in the past ten years, with little result. Though it may seem like common sense to anyone hoping to boost voter turnout, not everyone is equally invested in that goal. More flexibility in voting options disproportionately benefits minority and low-income voters, who tend to favor the Democratic Party. Republicans have therefore long been reluctant to implement these policy changes, afraid that it will tip the electoral scales against them. Instead, commentators like Jeff Jacob (columnist for the Boston Globe) point to voter apathy, a real problem used to distract from another that the United States must work to fix. Smart policy is not always smart politics for all.
Indeed, politics has dominated decision-making about voting legislation in recent years. Republicans have pursued increasingly strict voter ID laws that disproportionately affect likely Democratic voters. States like Texas disenfranchise young voters by not allowing student IDs and seven states require photo identification at the time of voting—when nonwhite voters have been found to be at least 2.5 times more likely than white voters to lack photo identification. A federal court of appeals struck down North Carolina’s photo ID law in 2016 for specifically targeting African American voters (the law also cut early voting and eliminated same-day registration). In early November, the ACLU sued Dodge City, Kansas, over the choice to move its lone polling place over a mile from the nearest bus stop, claiming that the change disadvantaged the city’s significant Latino population. Republicans have even claimed voter fraud in tight midterm races in Arizona and Florida with no evidence. Increasing turnout is clearly not a priority for all policymakers.
Voter Turnout as an American Value
If the United States is to be an exemplar of democracy, higher voter turnout needs to become a priority across the political spectrum. In an age where Americans increasingly express frustration with their government, increasing voter turnout is imperative to ensure that their interests are represented. Though it may benefit some to place the blame for disappointing electoral outcomes on nonvoters alone, the obstacles impeding civic participation matter too. Socioeconomic status, race, age, or any other demographic factor should not be an institutionalized barrier to a citizen’s participation in the democratic process. Policy changes such as lessening registration barriers, expanding early voting options and scheduling an electoral weekend would work toward voter turnout statistics that the United States can be proud of. In other words, high voter turnout at all levels of government ought to become a shared American value—and better policies surrounding the act of voting can accomplish that.
Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Gate.