A Survey of Electoral Reforms to Increase Voter Turnout
A few months ago, I wrote a post about changing our voting system from First-Past-the-Post to Range Voting, in order to improve our democracy. The basic idea was that in order to increase the integrity of the votes and the elections in which those votes were cast, the voters needed more than just a ballot on which they could only mark ‘yes’ or ‘no’. That is, of course, not the only improvement we can make for our elections. If the goal is to improve the strength and health of our democracy in the United States, we must recognize that it is a multi-faceted issue.
And changing the process of selecting winners based on votes presupposes that people are voting. But Americans don’t vote as much as we’d like.
Each election cycle is peppered with “Get Out the Vote” campaigns and voter registration drives. Voter turnout for presidential elections in the United States has been generally remained stagnant around 50-60% since World War II, according to the Election Project. The turnout in 2008 (61.1%) to election Barack Obama, it’s worth noting, had been the highest since 1968 (when Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey with a turnout rate of 62.5%).
Midterm elections have even fewer voters show up to cast a ballot. Since 1912, the turnout rate has been under 50%. The 2012 midterm election had the lowest rate (35.9%) since 1942, as the Washington Post pointed out.
Why is that?
There are a number of reasons why people don’t vote. For example,
- There is not a polling place nearby or in a convenient location.
- They cannot find the time in their busy schedule.
- They do not think it’s worth voting because they do not think their vote will matter.
- They are not registered to vote.
- They are not particularly fond of any of their choices in candidates.
- They simply do not care.
I think there are a number of ways to tackle these problems. I think there is more than one right answer to the question “how do we increase voter turnout?”. I don’t think there is a single miracle solution or that we could motivate everyone to vote. There is no winning them all, as the old adage goes. But we can set ourselves up for a healthier turnout in our elections. And honestly, I think we’d be in a better place giving people more opportunities to vote even if our turnout does begin to skyrocket after reforms are enacted.
Here are a few reforms I think are necessary:
Reform Alternative Voting Methods
There are three ways to vote in the United States besides the traditional method of voting in person at a polling place: 1) early voting, 2) absentee voting, and 3) mail voting.
Early Voting is a policy in which voters may submit a ballot before the designated Election Day in person to the state’s election offices or other official location. 37 states allow for voting during a period prior to the official Election Day. Among those 37 states, the average length of the early voting period is about 30 days, some ending the week before the election, some ending the Monday right before the election.
Early Voting is a tricky problem. The intuition regarding early voting is misleading. Proponents of reforming early voting suggest that it will make voting easier, and thus increase voter turnout. Early voting is supposed to provide greater access to polls, improve polling performance, and result in shorter lines. Wouldn’t this lead to more people voting? The evidence does not say so. Early voting does make voting easier, in fact, but only regular voters take advantage of the reform. It does not pull in new voters or non-voting citizens. It appears that you can lead a citizen to a polling place, but you can’t make them vote.
I think it’s still worth noting that in 2012, 31% of all votes were cast before Election Day. It’s certainly a policy to maintain and expand so that all regular voters can find easier access to the polls. Perhaps if another reform can get people to vote, early voting can keep them coming back each election.
Absentee Voting is the process of sending a ballot by mail to the state’s election office prior to the Election Day. A few states allow citizens to complete their absentee ballot online, but most require the citizen to notify the election office that they’d like an absentee ballot, then wait for one to be sent by mail, and then require the absentee ballot be sent back by mail (usually stipulating that the ballot be postmarked before the Election Day).
27 states allow citizens to request an absentee ballot whenever they’d like. Other states, like my home state of Missouri, only distribute absentee ballots to citizens with an approved excuse.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, six states and the District of Columbia allow citizens to opt-in to a permanent absentee list excuse-free, while nine more offer the same pending an approved excuse.
Susan Davis (D-CA 53rd Congressional District) wrote a piece in 2013 for the San Diego Union-Tribune advocating for the protection of absentee voting across the country. She wrote:
In recent years, voters across the country have faced severe barriers to voting, including strict voter ID requirements, shortened early voting periods, and limited polling hours.
Absentee voting allows voters to sidestep many of these hurdles. It can eliminate the long lines and waits exacerbated by limited polling hours, easing pressure on both poll workers and voters. In fact, in states with “no excuse” absentee voting, the 2012 Election Day wait time was 20 percent shorter than in states without. Absentee voting increases turnout among language minorities, who may need extra time to read over a ballot, and allows all voters to take their time when considering complex ballot initiatives.
Absentee voting was first introduced during the Civil War so that soldiers could cast their votes, but our society has changed, and service members are no longer the only Americans who need flexibility in voting. Commuters, students living away from home, the sick and the elderly, parents of young children, those who work long hours, nurses and emergency responders who cannot take time off of work — all can benefit from absentee voting.
Unfortunately, much of the available evidence (examples: , , , ) shows that the convenience of absentee voting only affects those voters who were already highly motivated to vote anyway. Again, voting was made easier, but that has not translated in higher voter turnout. Absentee voting, like early voting, may prove more useful when paired with other reforms, though that is not to discount its usefulness now.
Washington, Oregon, and Colorado actually run their elections entirely through mail. All eligible citizens are mailed a ballot prior to Election Day (usually 2 weeks), and voters can just send their ballot back through the mail or still choose to vote in-person at a polling place.
17 states have policies that allow for some elections to be run entirely by mail, but not all. The idea that all elections be run by mail was first instituted in Oregon in 1998, making this reform relatively new. Washington and Colorado didn’t enact this policy until 2011 and 2013, respectively.
There is substantial evidence (examples: , , , ) that mail voting actually increases voter turnout. According to the United States Elections Project, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado all have had higher than average voting rates.
Mail Voting is not a miracle solution, however. The New York Times used Minnesota’s 2008 election data to illustrate that point. 1 in 30 ballots received by the state election office were invalid and not counted. There were a variety of reasons why:
- 1 in 80 had a missing or invalid signature
- 1 in 230 did not have a witness’s signature
- 1 in 300 missed the mailing deadline
- 1 in 900 were missing an address
- Interestingly, 1 in 3000 were rejected because the voter tried to vote again
It is easy to notice that many of those problems above could be solved if the voting had occurred in person at a polling place. But it appears that the increase in valid votes overshadows the increase in invalid votes.
Mail Voting seems like a very interesting and appealing reform going forward.
Make Registration Easier
Registration laws in the United States are presenting many problems to voters and election officials. As Heather Gerken wrote in Democracy, a Journal of Ideas:
A recent Pew study reveals that at least 24 percent of the eligible voting population isn’t registered. One in eight registrations in the United States is either invalid or contains significant inaccuracies. Nearly two million dead people are on the rolls, 2.75 million people are registered in more than one state, and 12 million voter records contain incorrect addresses.
All of these problems generate headaches on Election Day. An MIT study estimated that 2.2 million voters weren’t able to cast a ballot that counted in 2008 due to registration problems. In addition, 5.7 million voters had a registration problem that had to be resolved before they could cast a ballot.
Each state has its own laws regarding registration, which all vary widely. North Dakota does not even require registration. But there are a couple ways to make registering citizens easier, and thus giving them more opportunities to vote.
Motor Voter Laws
California Governor Jerry Brown (D) made headlines in late 2015 when California became the 2nd state (after Oregon) to automatically register citizens as voters when they get or renew a state identification card (like a driver’s license). Citizens are still welcome to opt-out or cancel their registration at a later time.
But because the law is still so new, the policy will not go into effect until the statewide database in completed this summer. This also means we won’t have any idea of how it’ll affect voting turnout until November.
Many are skeptical of these laws in Oregon and California, believing that automatic registration still will not increase voter turnout. As the evidence showed for early and absentee voting, many critiques worry that making voting easier does not encourage people to vote more. In November 2015, New Jersey Governor (and presidential candidate) Chris Christie (R) vetoed a bill that would automatically register voters in New Jersey.
And speaking of Presidential candidates, the Brenner Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law had this to say about the two remaining Democratic candidates:
In a campaign speech in June, Hillary Rodham Clinton embraced automatic, universal voter registration for eligible citizens once they turn 18, and more recently Senator Bernie Sanders introduced an automatic registration bill in Congress. Senator Sanders’ bill was the second automatic registration bill introduced in Congress this year; in June, Rep. David Cicilline and 45 cosponsors introduced legislation requiring automatic registration for federal elections at all DMVs.
This reform is still very new and there has not been a lot of research or data collection exploring how effective this new system is.
11 states and the District of Columbia offer voters the opportunity to register to vote at the polling place on the same day they vote. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as long as the potential voter brings a proof of residency and a valid state ID, they can register and vote. Most states do not offer same-day registration for fear of voter fraud. Lawmakers fear that voters will sign up with different aliases and identities at multiple polling places, hoping that their votes will be counted and the election decided before the states becomes any the wiser.
States that offer same-day registration do take some precautions to combat voter fraud. In Montana, for example, potential voters can only register at the offices of the county election officials, not just any polling place. Other states use electronic ballots that have access to the statewide database of voters, and can verify in real time whether a voter is legitimate or not.
We saw the how big new voters can affect elections in Iowa last week. 44% of Democratic caucus-goers were attending their first caucus. According to the Des Moines Register, in precinct 59 “more than 200 of the 521 caucus-goers registered on-site. Amid the rush of new voters, organizers ran out of registration forms and had to count twice to determine who won more delegates.” It is believed that many people do not make up their minds to vote until just days before the election, when interest is piqued. But because of registration deadlines weeks before the election, many cannot vote even if they wanted to. The chart on the right from Demos shows that states that allow for same-day registration have increased voter turnout. Other studies (examples: . ) have found increased rates of turnout because of election-day registration.
Move Election Day to the Weekend
Right now, Election Day always falls on the first Tuesday after the First Monday in November. Why Tuesday? It goes back to the days when the election laws were first being drafted. Back in 1845, the lawmakers couldn’t choose Sunday because that was a day of rest and worship for a majority of the population. And when polling places were far away from people (especially those living off on farmsteads many miles away from population centers), there needed to be a whole day set aside just to allow people to arrive to their polling place on time. Additionally, the travelling voters could take the opportunity to sell their wares at market in the middle of the week while they were in town. So lawmakers set aside Monday as the day to travel and Tuesday as the day to vote.
And why November? November was the time right after the harvest when there wasn’t much to do.
Of course, the era of the yeomen farmer is long gone. Polling places are usually around the corner at the local community center, public school, or house of worship. And even if the polling place is physically far away, modern transportation system can get people there pretty quickly, not necessitating a day to be set aside for travel. Although the public transportation systems in many cities are another problem to tackle for another day.
Back in April 2013, Representatives Steve Israel (D-NY) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY) proposed legislation to change Election Day from the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November to the first full weekend. Rep. Slaughter said that:
Having Election Day on a Tuesday is an outdated requirement that simply does not comport with the schedules of modern Americans. Instituting weekend voting would make it easier and more convenient for Americans to exercise their right to vote, and would help reduce lines at the polls and increase voter turnout.
Their specific plan would mean that polls would be open from 10am (ET) on Saturday until 6pm (ET) Sunday. Officials would be allowed to close polls overnight if they wanted. It would allow more people access to polls because instead of just being open for 12 hours on a day in the middle of the work week, the polls could potentially be open for 32 hours. Their plan is not unfounded. One study finds that European countries increase their voter turnout by having their elections on weekends.
Other plans could provide the traditional 7am to 7pm schedule but require polling to stay open for a second day from 7am to 7pm as well.
It is obvious to say this plan would increase the costs of the election. But that is just if elections are moved to a full weekend. If the elections were just moved to Saturday or just Sunday, then increased election costs would be minimized.
All American workers have a right to vote without being penalized by their employer, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to miss work. Many who do not have personal transportation cannot make it to a polling place on a weekday. The United States has one of the lowest rates of turnout, especially compared to nations which have their elections on weekends. Back in 1845, Congress made elections on Tuesdays because that worked best with workers’ schedules. Perhaps it is time for Congress to update the date of Election Day to continue keeping elections convenient with workers’ schedules.
Make Election Day a Federal Holiday
Bernie Sanders was one of many advocates of making Election Day into a national holiday, thus allowing people to get off work and have more time, consequently, to go out and vote. Making a holiday out of Election Day would mean more opportunities to vote. And it would not be the first time Congress has established a weekday to be a federal holiday. Back in 1968, according to Steve Israel and Norman J. Ornstein, writing an opinion for the New York Times, “Congress passed the Monday Holiday law, which moved Memorial Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day and Washington’s Birthday from their original dates to Mondays.”
Puerto Rico does not vote in Presidential elections, yet the island territory enjoys very high voter turnout (around 70-80%) because of policies including making election day a holiday.
The “culture of the vote,” as many Puerto Rican analysts call it, is so expansive that on the island election day is a national holiday, when everyone takes off from work. “It’s like a big holiday, and voting is just the culmination of that, just like the 25th is the culmination of Christmas,” says Cámara [professor at the Universidad de Puerto Rico at San Juan]. “There’s a lot of social incentive to vote.”
Other states like Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia make election day a civic holiday. It would be beneficial to increase the amount of states making election day a holiday so that more citizens have an opportunity to be voters.
Senator Sander’s proposal for a Democracy Day, the name of the federal election day holiday, is not original. Back in 2012, Martin Wattenberg proposed election day be combined with Veterans’ Day, which sends a obviously strong message.
There are plenty of reforms we can make to ensure that more people can vote. This post is of course not an exhaustive list, but these are some more salient ideas floating around political circles. We can increase early voting and absentee voting; institute more mail voting to bring the ballots to the voters; expand registration efforts by automatically registering voters or at least allowing them to register up until the day of the election; we can move the elections to the weekend to increase the chances for voter participation, and make Election Day a holiday as well. I think if we want to strengthen our democracy, it is an imperative that actions be taken to do so.
-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)