Why have many millions of eligible Americans declined to vote in every single presidential election since the 1970’s? It’s a confounding question, and no doubt there are many causes at play. We do know for certain, however, that voters faced too many logistical obstacles to casting votes in 2016. Don’t blame the “non-voters;” blame the problematic logistics of registration and voting. It’s a system that we can and should fix.
In 2016 nearly half of voter-age citizens did not cast a vote for president; these non-voters totaled over 113 million people. These figures put our nation’s voter participation behind that of most developed democracies.
The reality of voting for president in America is that it is not an easy process, but it could be simplified and fixed relatively easily and at little cost, or even with a comfortable savings, to the states. When asked why they did not vote in 2016’s presidential election, non-voters cited both problems with their voter registration and problems getting to the polls. The United States is unique in placing the burden to register to vote upon the voter—unlike other democracies of the world, such as those in Europe which have automatic voter registration. Automatic voter registration is in fact favored by conservatives and research suggests it is completely nonpartisan. By contrast, in the United States, many voters are not well aware of what the registration process entails and what the deadlines are in their state. Despite the option to vote early available in some states, 13 states still do not allow early voting unless one has formally filed an excuse – or do not allow it at all. Even during early voting periods, long lines at the polls in pivotal states such as Ohio and North Carolina forced many to leave before voting, citing the need to return to work or family obligations.
In many states voting is getting more difficult: since the prior election of 2012, 14 states passed new requirements on voting that place greater logistical restrictions on the process. Some states, such as Ohio and Nebraska, have made the cut-offs for voter registration earlier despite the advances in technology and logistics that other states have taken advantage of when planning elections. Given that several states have successfully implemented same day voter registration (SDR), and that this policy first debuted in the 1970’s, other states’ decisions to make deadlines for voter registration even earlier seems inexplicable. Shouldn’t states be competing to make voting easier, not harder?
“America Goes to the Polls 2016,” a joint report issued by the nonpartisan groups NonprofitVOTE and The U.S. Elections Project, is illustrative of voting, and non-voting, trends in the presidential race. According to the study, two factors correlate consistently with higher voter participation: a.) living in a competitive electoral state (i.e. one of the roughly 12 “battleground states”); and, b.) living in a state where it is possible to fix a registration issue when one votes. The first point has been discussed at length in the MEVC Blog: unfortunately, our presidential selection system does not incentivize either party to get out the vote nationally-- only in a handful of states that are closely contested. While political parties would have an incentive to increase voter registration if we elected our president by a national popular vote, in the current presidential election system, impediments on voter registration can prove detrimental to the outcome. In a very close, pivotal state such as Michigan or Wisconsin in 2016, a few thousand Americans not voting makes all the difference. As with other state-level variances, logistical impediments to voting in pivotal swing states, where outcomes have hinged on a few thousand votes out of several million, could have vastly outsized effects due to our winner-take-all elector system. Or consider Ohio, a vital and perennial swing state that nevertheless saw low turnout in 2016: the state cut an entire week from its early voting period (the so-called “golden week” during which voters could register and vote on the same day). Such relatively small, single-state changes can and do end up influencing voter participation and have ramifications for the outcome of the election under a winner-take-all system. Counterbalancing our current system’s susceptibility to volatility is imperative. Pulling that off requires that we hold state election boards accountable and demand that they maximize voting efficiency.
It should be easy to register and easy to vote. If it is not, then that is a problem. But it is a fixable one.
There is no reason to delay, and no excuse to let logistical flaws persist when we have a whole toolbox of effective and proven remedies at our fingertips. We should make the voter registration process easier; consider implementing automatic registration or same day registration in more states; extend, rather than protract early voting periods; and make it possible in every state to cast a vote remotely, by mail or from home if necessary. Another proposed remedy which might simplify the logistics for most voters would be to make Election Day a federal holiday-- which some political scientists believe could dramatically increase voter turnout in the U.S., or simply moving voting from Tuesday to a more convenient day for voters, an idea Rick Santorum and other Republican candidates "expressed openness to change" in 2012.
And foremost, we should elect our president by national popular vote so that every voter knows his or her vote counts equally nationwide. This reform would motivate national parties to put pressure on every election board to make sure every eligible voter has the opportunity to vote. We have many remedies at-hand. It’s time for legislators to adopt them.