Law in Contemporary Society

Elevating Participation in American Presidential Elections

Problems with the Voting System

The often repeated goal of the American voting system is to provide each citizen an equal say in choosing his representatives. In every presidential election, both candidates make a point to tout the continued success of the electoral system and how it represents quintessential American virtues: participation, freedom, choice, democracy. But a quick look at our voting system as compared to the other liberal democracies tells a different story. Voter turnout and registration in the United States remains comparatively lower than that of other Western democracies. Even in the most hotly contested presidential elections, turnout among the voting eligible population hovers around 60%, and in legislative elections with no presidential vote, turnout is around 35-40%. Given the amount of media coverage and money involved a Presidential election, this seems a strange disparity. Western Europe, by contrast, has consistent voter turnout between 75-80%.

Interestingly enough, voter turnout is not necessarily tied to whether a state is a "battleground" or not. When compared with the national voter turnout average, Ohio and Pennsylvania, traditionally considered to be two battleground states that see a lot of money and visits by candidates during presidential campaigns, had eligible voter turnout of .3% and -8.6% respectively.* Some states considered solidly in one party's camp, like Alaska (26.01% disparity in favor of the winning party), Idaho (34.32%) and Vermont (22.36%) have average voter turnout rates 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

To increase voter turnout, we could do two things: 1) increase registration among the population, 2) increase turnout among registered voters.

Possible Solutions

Vote By Mail

In 1998, the state of Oregon instituted a vote by mail system, allowing voters to send in their ballots before election day. In the last six presidential election cycles (2008-1988), the state has had considerably higher turnout among the voting age population than the national average, but this disparity has fluctuated. What has increased is the proportion of registered voters going to the polls. From 1988 to 1996 the percentage of registered Oregonians voting was between 3 and 6 percent higher than the national average. In the three election cycles after 1998, the range was between 10 and 13%, without a corresponding shift in the percentage of voting age Oregonians registered. The state of Washington, which began optional county by county voting by mail in 1993, has also seen a gradual increase in registered voter participation.

The Oregon system has a number of benefits over the current election day system. It is cheaper and avoids the problems of voter disenfranchisement due to lines or lack of polling places or last minute protests and disruptions at sites. People who would otherwise be too busy or tired to vote on November 4th can vote at their leisure. If vote by mail had similar effects in every state, it would increase participation among registered voters by 10 million nationwide.

Increasing the Number of Registered Voters

Ultimately, any major increase in participation must address the problem of lax voter registration. Of a voting age population of 225 million, about 78% were registered as of last election. However, low registration and low turnout do not always correlate. For example, Mississippi and West Virginia, with respective voter turnout of -17% and -16.3% percent below the national average in the last election, had voter registration rates of 89 and 86 percent.

Of the six southwest states (CA, CO, NM, AZ, TX, NV), four have voter registration under 70%. Despite Arizona's status as an "in play" state (average spread in the last 3 elections 8.41), it has the lowest registered voter percentage of any state at 61%. All are states with a large percentage of Hispanic immigrants, who are less likely to register to vote because of language barriers, unfamiliarity, or too much familiarity with corrupt politics back home. Automatic voter registration upon citizenship would streamline the process for newly minted citizens.

Traditionally, voter registration drives have been the province of the individual parties or non-profit organizations. In particularly close elections voter registration drives will be in full swing. In the early 90s the Clinton Administration passed the "motor voter" act, which lets people automatically vote when they receive a driver's license- unfortunately, many Americans do not have driver's licenses do not have driver's licenses.

Same day registration gives voters the option of registering to vote on the same day as the election. When instituted in North Carolina in 2007, voter registration shot up 5 percent to 91%, though it is unclear whether this increase was due to the new law or to private get out the vote campaigns in anticipation of a hotly contested election.

Automatic registration is popular among most Western nations, and could be accomplished with a system like the Selective Service System which automatically adds citizens onto the voting rolls once they turn 18. This would be the most efficient, but also the most politically unlikely measure.

Why is this a Problem?

If you accept the proposition that our society operates best when its leaders are elected by a representative bloc of voters, than low turnout should be a concern. Turnout is lowest among the bottom quintile of income earners, and is significantly lower among voters with only a high school education. This is a group that already has less power because of a reduced ability to donate to political campaigns.

The Interests Opposed to Change

Any reforms that increase the participation of the lower class would be opposed by the wealthy and any politicians reliant on their backing. In the last election cycle, the proportion of voters voting for either party stayed relatively consistent across income bands above $50,000. Below that number, however, votes began to swing toward Barack Obama. People with incomes below $30,000 voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats. The current leadership of the Republican Party, obviously, would not like to see this groups participation level with other income groups for fear they would have to adopt more redistributionist policies or risk being marginalized.

The rhetoric used by the opposition will appeal to voters' sense of patriotism, history, tradition, and individualism. There will be appeals to the mythical "good voter", "why should we change what the responsible, informed voters have been successful at for so long?" If people are too lazy to go down and register to vote, why should the system change to accommodate them?

An obvious strategy to combat that rhetoric would be an appeal towards American traditions of democratic participation- everyone should have a vote, voting is a right and access should be universally guaranteed. Unfortunately, this rhetoric is often ineffective. Americans are worried about voting, sure, but they are often worried about the power of their vote being diluted by "lazy" (read: stupid, uneducated, and poor) voters, or the potential for voter fraud. Perhaps equally as important to Americans is seeing voting as a choice, not a duty. Compulsory voting and automatic registration conjure up images of coercion and rigged balloting.

It might be beneficial to harness the current wave of antagonism towards inefficient government in order to encourage state governments to enact voter reforms. Vote by mail should be attractive to the elderly and working people, as well as people concerned with government waste or with unintentional voter disenfranchisement in the form of long lines and understaffed polling places. A form of vote by network could be developed to appeal to the youth vote.

Significantly harder would be rallying support for same-day or automatic voter registration. Fears of voter fraud and illegal voting conspiracies permeate each election cycledespite such fraud being rare and localized. Local and state incumbents on both sides of the aisle feed into these fears, worried that higher turnout or easier access to the polling place would upset the order of things. In those southwest states with especially low registration percentages, politicians would fear the addition of large ethnic blocs to the rolls, worried they might spawn candidates of their own.

*The data used to compute the statistics in this paper was pulled from this site

-- By JonathanWaisnor - 17 Feb 2010


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r12 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:17 - IanSullivan
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