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Why is turnout so low in U.S. elections? We make it more difficult to vote than other democracies

We make it more difficult to vote than do other democracies
REUTERS/John Gress
In the United States, the responsibility is on the citizen to get registered.

This the second story in a series comparing the U.S. system of politics and elections with other democracies around the world.

Every close race in the country in November will depend on whose supporters show up at the polls and are allowed to vote. This, technically, is true of close elections all over the democratic world.

But turnout issues in the United States are especially fraught with weirdness because of our general pattern of lower voter participation, and even more so during a non-presidential election (like this year’s) when turnout falls even lower. There is no other developed democracy in the world that, when it holds an election in which all of the seats in the lower house of the national legislature are on the ballot, has a turnout of less than half of its eligible voters. In the United States, it happens every midterm election and will happen again next month.

Sixty percent of the voting-age population will not vote, which means a huge reservoir of potentially game-changing non-voters. (Theoretically, of course. I don’t mean to suggest that there is some brilliant speech or campaign commercial that is going to convert very many of those folks into voters. Many campaign ads are actually intended to do the opposite.)

As I mentioned in the previous installment, those who study comparative democracy assure me that it’s wrong to assume that this terrible-awful turnout merely reflects a higher level of apathy in the United States. There are many differences in rules and systems that help explain the gap and these have been discussed for years by those political scientists who specialize in comparing political systems around the world.

Most of us are not parties to that conversation — including me until I started asking — but I was quite impressed with the list of structural, legal and procedural elements of U.S. elections that seem to contribute to our poor turnouts. Here are some of the U.S. practices:

Requiring registration

Most scholars who seek to solve the riddle of low U.S. voter participation start with this explanation. Personally, I was shocked that the United States' voting system is rare among world democracies in that it requires voters to register to vote. But, for me at least, this is one of the main benefits of looking at other democracies.

Turns out, in most of the rest of the democratic world, there’s no separate step called registration. It happens automatically. Or, to put it a bit differently, in most of the democracies, registering citizens to vote is the responsibility of the government. In general, the governments know the names, ages and addresses of most of its citizens and — except in the United States — provide the appropriate polling place with a list of those qualified to vote. The voter just has to show up.

In the United States, the responsibility is on the citizen to get registered. Scholars who rely on this explanation typically say that it makes voting a two-step process. A significant number of potential voters don’t take that first step. You can criticize them for not taking that step if you like. In most instances, it's not that hard. But there are undoubtedly many who would vote if they were registered. Only they ain’t.

There are also many who have registered, or at least think they have, and find out on Election Day that there’s a problem. Sometimes it can be fixed on the spot, or the vote can be cast provisionally. But sometimes it can’t, and another vote goes down the drain.

In an article for the journal Democracy, in which she advocated making registration automatic, Heather Gerkin wrote:

The registration process is plagued by two problems: paperwork and parties. In most states, citizens who wish to vote must obtain and fill out a paper application. Between the 2006 and 2008 elections, for instance, states had to process 60 million registration applications, most of them on paper. The voter’s information is then entered manually into a statewide database. Errors inevitably occur along the way. Moreover, most states demand that voters notify their election office of a change of address, and few jurisdictions have an adequate system for taking dead people off the rolls. The result is that many statewide lists are filled not just with errors but with “deadwood” (registrations that are no longer valid).

Third-party groups compound the heavy costs associated with this paper-driven process. Because we place the burden on individuals to register themselves, third parties inevitably step in to help. The trouble is that not all of them are helpful. These groups can make mistakes; some have even committed registration fraud. One study, for instance, found that one-third of the registration applications submitted in 2008 didn’t result in a valid registration or address change. The problem of third-party involvement goes deeper, however. Political parties take on much of the registration work. Their incentives are skewed, and as a result the electorate can become skewed. That’s because the political parties’ goal isn’t to register people. Their goal is to register their people. And even when third parties are on their best behavior, they do most of their work immediately before the election, which means that under-resourced and understaffed election administrators struggle to deal with the onslaught of paper applications filed during the weeks leading up to the election.

While many U.S. jurisdictions are making it easier to, for example, register to vote while getting a driver’s license or even offering “same-day registration” (which Minnesota permits), many Americans don’t live in these places.

Before moving ahead, this section raises an odd question: If requiring voters to register is so unusual, why do we do it? According to this article, it started in the early 19th century — when immigrants were flooding into U.S. cities — in part to ensure that non-citizens wouldn’t vote, but also to suppress the participation of those who were entitled to vote. Alexander Keyssar, author of a book on the right to vote, said that “many poor citizens were also not included on the voter rolls; they were often not home when the assessors came by, which was typically during the work-day.” In the mid-20th century, after civil rights laws sought to assure the right of African-Americans to vote, southern states used the registration process as an opportunity to intimidate or discriminate against blacks seeking to register.

Holding elections on Tuesday

No one else does that. Most democracies vote on weekends, or have more than one day to vote, or get a day off work to vote. But in America: Tuesday.

If you’re wondering whether this is in the U.S. Constitution: Nope. Not even slightly. The Framers had nothing to say on the subject. Each state was on its own in the early days and there was no national Election Day. But in 1845 Congress established the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as a nationwide date for federal elections.

Why Tuesday? Made sense at the time. Most Americans still lived on farms. For them, it could take all day to get to the county seat to vote. Many Americans observed a Sabbath ban on travel. Tuesday voting would give the (white, male) farmers the Sabbath day off, Monday to get to the county seat, Tuesday to vote and Wednesday to get back home.

Made some sense in 1845. Makes little sense now.

When pollsters have attempted to ask non-voters why they haven’t voted, two of the common answers have been “too busy” or “schedule conflicts.” A lame excuse by some, perhaps, but not for all. And what’s the point of sticking with a system intended for farmers who needed a whole day to get to the polling place?

(Minnesota, by the way, which has the model law on most of these issues, guarantees every citizen time off from their jobs to vote without penalties or reductions in their pay, personal leave or vacation time.)

There has been a bill introduced in most recent Congresses to establish weekend voting, your choice of Saturday or Sunday. But it’s never gotten far. This brings to mind a couple of recurring explanations for why our system is the way it is: 1) It was designed long ago, when many of the other countries that are now democracies were not. They have benefited from our mistakes. 2) Anything that changes voting will be analyzed along partisan lines, and it is a rare change that both parties see as benefitting themselves.

If you’re interested, here’s a cute, short TED Talks on why we vote on Tuesdays;  and here’s an op-ed from one of the main authors of the proposed weekend voting law, making the case.

Here, again, things are getting better, although the improvement varies dramatically state by state. Many jurisdictions are making it easier to, for example, vote by mail. (Oregon, in case you missed this development, switched in 2000 to a system of exclusively voting by mail. It had a voter-participation rate of about 80 percent that year.)

Minnesota has switched to an increasingly common system called “no excuses” absentee voting, where those who want the convenience of voting in advance by mail don’t have to lie and pretend that there was no reasonable way they could get to the polls on the one Tuesday designated as Election Day.

But there are still many states where voting on a day other than that one Tuesday is pretty hard. Here again, you can bring up objections to making voting easier or more convenient. But it’s hard not to acknowledge that making it inconvenient undoubtedly causes some potential voters not to vote.

Voluntary voting

Most of the world’s democracies, including the United States, leave it up to voters to decide whether to participate in elections. But there are countries in which voting is mandatory, in some cases backed by small fines for those who decline to vote. In fact, there are seven of these among the 31 democracies compared in “A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective,” a soon-to-be published text on comparative democracy. All of them have higher voter participation rates than does the United States, but that’s not saying much because the United States ranks so close to the bottom of that list. But, more notably, four of the “compulsory voting” countries — Italy, Belgium, Greece and Australia — occupy the top four spots when all 31 countries are ranked for voter turnout.

Do the mandatory-voting countries really enforce that law? Within reason, yes. In Australia, for example, the government sends out a letter to apparent non-voters (after the election) giving them an opportunity to give a valid reason for why they didn’t vote. If you don’t have a good-enough excuse, you are fined $20. If you don’t pay the fine, you may be taken to court, at which stage the fines get substantially higher.

I can’t really see the United States seriously considering a compulsory-voting law, but if the goal is to increase voter turnout, it works.

Felon disfranchisement

According to “A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective,” the United States is also the only one of the 31 democracies that allows for felons to be barred for life from voting. It doesn’t happen to happen to most felons, and it varies state by state (and the degree of state-to-state variance is among the strangenesses of U.S. democracy compared to most others).

Eleven of the 31 democracies (including our neighbor Canada) allow felons to vote from prison. So do Maine and Vermont.

A lot of countries, and a lot of the states of the United States, do not let felons vote from prison but eventually restore the right to vote after the felons have been released. This is often on a sliding scale that depends, for example, on the felony of which they were convicted.

But four U.S. states permanently bar ex-felons from voting, no matter how long they have been out of prison. That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the democratic world. Then there are a range of policies that reduce the likelihood of former inmates getting their franchise back. In many states, they have to apply for the restoration after they are released. In some (Florida, for example), they can’t make that application until five years after they are out of prison. In Iowa, an inmate must apply and prove he or she has repaid all court fees and made restitution to victims.

A study by The Sentencing Project heading into the 2012 presidential election found a startling level of racial and regional disparities. More than three million convicts and ex-cons who had not regained their right to vote were concentrated in six contiguous Southern states — Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia.

The racial disparity is staggering. That same 2012 study (the lead author of which, by the way, was University of Minnesota sociologist Christopher Uggen) found that because of felon disfranchisement, 23 percent of blacks in Florida, 22 percent in Kentucky and 20 percent in Virginia were barred from voting. Nationally, the disfranchisement rate for African-Americans was four times higher than for the non-African-American population.

Since the United States locks up far more inmates than any other democracy, the impact on the electorate, or at least the potential electorate, is considerable and has grown at a startling rate over recent decades. The Uggen study found that heading into 2012, 2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting population was disfranchised due to a felony conviction. Almost half of them — about 2.6 million Americans — were no longer in prison, but lived in states that disfranchised people after they have completed their sentences.

It may strike you as reasonable to extend the punishment for a felony to a longer-term loss of the right to vote, or it may strike you as a better idea to reintegrate a released inmate into society as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

But the racial and regional disparities across a single democracy — especially when holding a national election — are weird and certainly might (and do) invite partisan exploitation, which conjures up one of the less-remembered elements of the greatest recent meltdown of a presidential election: the Bush-Gore recount in Florida in 2000.

Katherine Harris, who became suddenly famous during that recount as both the Florida secretary of state (in charge of the election) and co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Florida (in charge of helping Bush win Florida’s electoral votes), hired a private, outside firm to help her identify convicted felons, including those who committed their crimes in other states, who were registered to vote in Florida but should be purged from the Florida voting rolls because of their criminal records. The firm found more than 50,000 names of convicted felons who matched names of registered voters in Florida, but the firm warned that it couldn’t verify that the Florida voter and the felon of the same name were actually the same person. The firm even noted that, in many cases, the year in which the alleged felons had been convicted was a year that hadn’t yet occurred (presumably a clerical error made in compiling the list, but pretty good grounds for double-checking the accuracy of the list). Without checking to make sure the suspect voters were the actual felons, Harris ordered all the names stricken from the voting rolls, which led to thousands of Floridians — disproportionately African-American — being disqualified from voting in an election that was ultimately decided by a margin of fewer than 600 votes.

(For more detail on that amazing tale, here’s a 2002 Harper’s piece by Greg Palast.)

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Comments (102)

On the subject of felons

We have a record high number of felons, due most to our draconian drug laws. These laws are also enforced unequally. Poor minorities are more likely to have drug convictions, even though they are no more likely to use drugs than the white middle class.

Some thoughts from an election judge

Like many other people in your neighborhood, I help people vote on Election Day, and may sure everything is handled fair and square.

Each polling place includes judges from different parties -- but we never discuss our own political views on the job. We don't even know who is in which party. It doesn't matter. Our job is to help voters, and to guard the integrity of the vote.

I have to tell you, it works pretty well. I encourage everyone to try it sometime. You'll learn a lot.


As the head election judge, I have to know which of my judges are in which party. For certain election functions we're required by law to have judges from differing parties administer the function to make sure nothing odd is going on. For example, any time the ballot box is opened, we need two judges to witness that no ballots are being tampered with.

If anyone would like an inside look at how our election process works, I strongly urge them to sign up as a judge. It's not a lot, but it is a paid gig and you get compensated for your training time as well as the time you work at the polls. You don't have to be retired and your regular job, by law, has to let you do your civic duty, just like being on a jury.

If you think there are immigrants voting, busloads of people coming in, people voting as their neighbors, or too much vouching going on, then you'll be in a front row seat to see it happening.

Voting is far from the only way to excercise democracy

While I agree the registration requirement is an obstacle for voters in the US, I don't believe it is the primary reason people in the US don't vote.

When civic pride and passion prevail in a society, citizens will go through hell or high water to vote. Friends who've trudged through African wastelands to vote and others who do poll monitoring in emerging democracies globally attest to this. These are places where obstacles are far more significant than in the US. Again this is not to say our registration is obstructive. I agree it is, to a point.

But it is not the primary reason for low voter turnout in the US.

The reason for that is cultural, not political. Really. Though politics does a good job of maximizing this cultural malaise.

Communities where civic engagement is high, voting is also high. Voting is one small part of civic engagement, which is a far better tool for understanding the relative health of a democracy.

Healthy democracies are places where citizens see it as their responsibility to do far more than vote. Though voting, again, is part of what they do. Their involvement goes far beyond. These are places where PTAs are well attended, neighborhood groups work together, issues are addressed together in cross-sector collaborations.

What this means is that citizens see their power. Even if their vote is obstructed, they are well aware that their engagement is far harder to undermine. Politicians in such communities understand this power. Not only for fear of the next elections. But because they know that citizens can help them solve significant issues that will make their communities more successful. Which of course, can be highly beneficial to them in future elections.

Democracy is not and never was intended in this country to be transactional. Voting is simply one of many ways citizens can engage, but it is far from the most powerful. Democracy, to succeed, must be relational. Based on ongoing interconnections between all stakeholders, that together define culture, which in turn defines candidates.

True to our consumer culture, we're 'buying into' the belief that our happiness (with candidates, government, etc.) is dependent on them only, not us. Some candidates use this passivity to great effect. By telling us what we want to hear. Or, through their actions (including funding activities) leaving us convinced our vote will buy us little.

In fact, this assumption is correct. Voting won't buy us much. Unless we get far more involved working with one another--even across differences--and engaging our own power to create the country we've been, as Dorothy Cotton put it, 'waiting for.'

Time to stop waiting, and start doing!

Andrea Morisette Grazzini
Founder & CEO WetheP, Inc. (

Nice, but...

Now we're talking about some important stuff. I think to some extent worrying about voter turnout in-and-of itself can promote a mathematical fallacy. There's actually no reason to assume that more participation would change the outcome of elections, and unless it would change the outcome of elections it really doesn't diminish our democracy. It wouldn't matter for instance if 55% of a million voters or 55% of ten million voters elected a candidate. The same results with larger numbers wouldn't change the outcome, or policy.

If you argue that higher turnout would change the outcome you need to provide some evidence for that, which I'm not seeing here. What would such evidence look like? Well, if you consistently have radically different election outcomes compared to pre-election or post election polling might tell you that there's some kind of self selection voter behavior that's skewing the results, but what we seem to seeing is that those who vote are pretty much voting the way those who could've voted would have.

On the other hand, the disenfranchisement of voters who want to vote or have a right to vote can effect outcomes, but that's not a function over-all turn out. We could have for instance 80% turnout OF ELIGIBLE VOTERS and still be getting skewed outcomes if the right voters were disenfranchised. If you classify 20%-40% of a particular demographic "ineligible" it may not matter how large or small your turnout is.

I think voter registration should be automatic, we have the technology to do this. And I personally don't see the benefit of disenfranchising prisoners or felons. It seems kind of weird to let a prisoner vote, but really what's the argument for preventing it? We don't strip criminals of their citizenship, we don't deport them if they are citizens, so why shouldn't we let them vote? And of course the inherent racism in our criminal justice system creates obvious problems along racial lines.


I can see where government registration of LEGAL citizens would make it easier for our mobile population but how do you confirm the identity of the voter? We get into the ID debate again. What do other countries with government registration do?

One would Think

In this high tech world, one would think that the government would know exactly who is in the USA legally and where they live. (at least the district) And preferably every legal adult would have a valid photo ID.

Apparently people need a photo ID to collect benefits, yet for some reason people think showing an ID at the polls is restrictive...


Either you're completely new to the whole issue of voter IDs and have read absolutely no articles, forums, or blogs on it... Or you're being deliberately obtuse. In either case you're presenting yourself as someone who is woefully ill informed and I don't think that's the image you intended to show the public.

Now it could be the latter and you simply don't agree with the reasoning people have put forth to justify their opposition to voter IDs, but that's an entirely different stance than the one you brought forth in your post above. If that's your real intent, then you need to state it as such so you don't look like the eleventh kid in line to get a hotdog from a package of ten.


All those words and no content.

Sorry. I think it makes sense that every person living in America legally should have a government issued photo ID that clearly states their citizenship status and preferably their current residence. At least city and state.

And it could have a smart chip in it that Liberals could use for gun control tracking. I assume implanting us all with an identification chip would be to big brotherish. Besides someone would figure out how to hack it. (hahaha)

Because government issued ID's ...

Are a corner stone of Libertarian and Independent philosophies. Sorry John, we had this debate... you lost.

Ihre Papiere bitte?

Ihre Papiere bitte?

Additional Benefit

No voter registration required...

Other countries

Other countries issue National IDs to qualified voters on their 18th birthday. The government does this. The voter doesn't have to do anything(birth certificate, marriage certificate, utility bill, divorce certificate, etc)....but vote. That's the way it is in most democracies...except the Exceptional America.

Every bong toking slacker is

Every bong toking slacker is nodding their head (slowly) in favor of what you're saying Tom. But I'm guessing they'll need a ride, or gas money; can you hook them up?

I see no reason

to bring Rand Paul into this.

Are you offering this at government expense?

I’ve never heard anyone propose that it was a government obligation
to provide IDs free of charge - and actively seek out every citizen to be sure they were included!

"The voter doesn't have to do anything(birth certificate, marriage certificate, utility bill,
divorce certificate, etc)....but vote."

This is interesting. I remember Michele Bachmann endorsed not filling out census forms.
Wonder how she feels about IDs.

Michele Bachmann claims Constitution only requires you to answer
how many people are in your household

"... you need to state it as

"... you need to state it as such, so you don't look like the eleventh kid in line to get a hotdog from a package of ten.”

Great line.
I’m not sure what he was going for, either. I hope he bothers to clarify.

Most democracies don't have

Most democracies don't have 300 million citizens or 12 million in their countries illegally.

What makes democracy better

For some reason, an underlying assumption is that the more people vote the better but why is it so? Mr. Udstrand has touched on this subject a little bit but from a different perspective. In fact, we do not need more voters, we need more informed voters. How is democracy promoted if people come and vote for everyone with a letter D or a letter R next to a name? How is it promoted if they vote for people with names which sound similar to theirs? How is it promoted even if people vote only on the basis of seeing half a dozen one minute commercials? Will our democracy get better if felons in prisons can vote (maybe under an order from a gang leader)? Ultimately, why is European democracy considered better than ours and the one to emulate?

Of course, we can’t talk about voting without talking about racism. So our criminal justice system is racist, isn’t it? Why? The answer, I guess, is that there are many more minorities in prisons than whites. Sure, but there are also many more men in prisons than women – is it because our justice system is sexist?

By the way, in Canada and some European countries it seems that a photo ID is required… I still don’t understand what sense it makes to register people to vote without making sure that they are citizens if, by law, only citizens are allowed to vote… No one questions that people have to show a medical insurance card in the clinic to prove that they are eligible or a movie ticket to get in a movie theater… In order to vote one has to prove that he or she is eligible – why is it so controversial?

Bingo, Ilya. Nailed that one

Bingo, Ilya. Nailed that one shut.

Entirely Disagree

I think Ilya has an interesting point in the first paragraph, but that doesn't mean we should make it harder for more people to vote.

As to Ilya's second paragraph about the justice system being 'racist...' Ilya is saying that the courts must be racist because so many black people are in prison... indeed, it's reactionary (at best, or racist at worst) legislators who created the disparate drug sentencing and levied mandatory minimums and three-strike laws onto the courts. Ilya's answer is wrong, even though the initial observation is correct. Basically, we need to be doing more to make minorities an integral part of the legislative and electoral process, not less, nor should we be trying to take away their right to vote with bogus photo ID laws that disproportionately affect blacks, students, and the poor... which gets to Ilya's 3rd paragraph. It's not like anyone can just walk into a polling place and vote willy-nilly. I can attest to this, as I've been voting in every election, either directly or via absentee ballot since 1998. I've gone to the wrong polling place after moving cities on several occasions, and while everyone there was helpful in getting me to the right location, I couldn't vote outside my precinct. There are no studies that show any appreciable level of voter fraud in MN, and certainly none that could swing an election.

But, again, we've had this debate. Photo ID lost at the polls, at the hands of the citizens of Minnesota.


" I still don’t understand what sense it makes to register people to vote without making sure that they are citizens if, by law, only citizens are allowed to vote…"

The registration process verifies citizenship and eligibility, THAT'S the point of registration whether it's automatic or not. See, this is the problem, whenever we try to talk about this people who don't understand how the system actually works on a basic nuts and bolts level. people come out of the woodwork and make a lot of noise. When you try to explain they make no legitimate effort to comprehend, they "debate" you. And so it goes.

Many Republicans

Many Republicans have actually had the guts to say it.... The lower the voter turnout, the better they do.

Look at who's arguing in these comments against the idea of getting more people to vote.

I'll say it Tom. Because so

I'll say it Tom. Because so many voters have absolutely no clue about what or who they are voting for, keeping limited to the informed favors Republicans. Heck, I'll say it loud. If your success relies on marshaling piles and heaps of low information voters, you have a problem.

I assume you are referring

To the Tea party members Swift as the clueless voters who vote Republican. One of many problems for that party.

Foreman, if someone is

Foreman, if someone is involved enough to identify themselves with a political movement or party, they are inherently not clueless. They may be wrong about everything, as are most Democrats, but not clueless.

That must be why so many of them

thought their medicare program was run by Sears instead of the Feds.

Its easy to confuse them.

Its easy to confuse them. Sears and Medicare share a common trait. Both are nearing bankruptcy.

It would be

It would really be a great thing for the TP and the GOP in general to make it very loud and very clear to those who will vote for them that they are 'for' shutting down Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid entirely. I know too many who consider themselves either TP or GOP who think the opposite is true and that the TP and GOP would actually continue to fund those entities. See...I'm afraid these people will vote.

Well Jon, if they're gonna

Well Jon, if they're gonna shut them down they better hurry. Obama's dipping deep into the Medicaid and Medicare well to fund Obamacare, and the feds have already hollowed SSI out so thoroughly it's just about ready to collapse of it's own weight.

"Elephant" in the room

Here’s the, you should pardon the expression, "elephant" in the room.

There have been only a handful of cases of voter fraud in the last several years. There is absolutely no evidence that non-citizens or people whose voting rights have been suspended aren’t sufficiently deterred by the laws in every state making casting a vote you are not legally entitled to vote a felony punishable by prison time.

There is, in short, absolutely no evidence that we have a problem that need’s solving. And yet here we have the Republican Party, the party that purports to just hate, hate, hate bureaucracy and “intrusive big government” and “wasteful spending” demanding that we spend tens of millions expanding the bureaucratic burden on ordinary citizens, taking down names and addresses all to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Anyone who looks at that anomaly is compelled to conclude that there is another agenda. And to determine what that agenda might be, one need only look at which part of the electorate is most likely to find these laws sufficiently burdensome to just take a pass on exercising their fundamental right to vote.

The entire Republican argument is transparently pretextual. And they get away with it because or media culture insists on treating Republican arguments that are self-evidently made in bad faith as being serious and avoiding asking question that might tend to expose that fact.

Vote Away

Tom, thanks for spelling it out so succinctly. Ilya needs to read your post so he can better understand why people aren't on board with his voter ID initiative.

For those who profess that they still don't understand what the fuss is about, here's some additional talking points.

-The voter ID does not indicate whether or not someone is a citizen.
-In fact the bill as proposed by the Republicans at the time stripped out many of the measures we currently use to verify if someone is a resident of Minnesota. (Yes, I read the bill.)
-IDs are easily faked, as any under aged college student can attest.
-Many people do not have access to the paperwork needed to get an ID, creating another barrier for people to vote.
-While a proposal was floated to provide free IDs, there was not a similar proposal to provide free access to the paperwork, such as a birth certificate, to get that free ID. That adds yet another barrier to poor people who would like to vote.
-The Republicans flat out rejected Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's proposal to introduce electronic polling books to the precincts, which would tie into the state's database so people really could be verified that they're national and state citizens.

The last item tells me that Republicans weren't really serious about voter verification as they turned down a simple and elegant solution to the stated problem. The fact that conservatives who are policy wonks come here and profess that they don't know what the objections are tells me that they're deliberately being obtuse. That makes their stated purpose spurious, as they're deliberately trying to cloud the issue rather than address the issues in a forthright manner and find a solution that's agreeable to both parties.

Address the concerns head on, listen to the person on the other side of the isle, and maybe they'll make some real progress in the world. Reason and logic prevail. Dispersions and baseless accusations are, rightfully, thrown in the trash bin.

I Agree

Let's stop focusing on all the perceived intent on both sides and figure out how to get every legal resident a photo ID that can be used as a drivers license and proof of identity, citizenship status, voter status, welfare status, gun rights status, social security status, etc.

Unfortunately citizens will need to take some action to make this happen since the government can not assign an ID to someone who they don't know exists.

"Address the concerns head on, listen to the person on the other side of the isle, and maybe they'll make some real progress in the world. Reason and logic prevail. Dispersions and baseless accusations are, rightfully, thrown in the trash bin."

Wait, you want a photo ID that can be used as a driver's license

without any proof that the person knows how to drive?

Smart Chips

Cards can be programmed with information and read with readers.

Is It True

Is it true that people need to show a photo ID to obtain welfare, medicare and other benefits?

If so, who are these poor people with no photo ID?


Remember when you lost that whole photo ID battle at the ballot box, even with these same arguments you keep tossing out? It's over. Move on.

Time and Patience

MN has legalized gay marriage after many efforts, maybe in time we will appreciate the logic of ensuring voters are who they say they are, and that they are eligible to vote.

It may actually increase voter turn out, since they will think someone is trying to prevent them.

It always amazes me that I need to show a valid photo ID to buy a beer, but not to vote. Who are these people who have no legal photo ID? Are they all "on the wagon"? Don't they cash checks? Have a job?

1/4 of all Americans are

1/4 of all Americans are unbanked (no checking or savings account) or underbanked (have checking or savings account, but primarily use alternative financial services like payday lenders).

Speedy Loan

I checked one pay day store on line. They require a photo ID.

And you are the one who pointed out to me that people getting benefits need a photo ID... So who are all these people we are trying to disenfranchise?

Re: payday lenders. Some do

Re: payday lenders. Some do require ID, some don't. And then there are the unbanked.

Re: benefits: You need a photo ID, but it doesn't have to have your current address on it. That can be provided via other means.

"...maybe in time we will

"...maybe in time we will appreciate the logic of ensuring voters are who they say they are, and that they are eligible to vote."

This system is already in place. It's called 'registering to vote.' We are fortunate to have same-day voter registration in MN, as well.

As to your whole beer argument, "one vote too many" doesn't dramatically increase your chances of having an automobile accident or a domestic disturbance call... which are verifiable statistics. The statistics we have on voter fraud is that it is statistically insignificant... like trying to use feathers as ballast on a battleship.

And there are a lot of people who just don't drink, and there are a lot of people who have friends get their booze for them.

2 Goals

Two goals, not one... "are who they say they are, and that they are eligible to vote" Registering does little to nothing for goal number 1.

No statistics if you are not measuring. Since no one is checking photo ID's, there would be minimal or no misrepresentation cases.

So who again are these people who do not get welfare benefits, buy beer, cash checks, go to a clinic, rent tools, check in to hotels, or do any of the other 100's of things that usual require a photo ID?

The only demographic I have heard of that made any sense were old folks who lived in a nursing home.

2nd Goal

Your 2nd goal is not being addressed with the ID requirement "and that they are eligible to vote". When someones eligibility changes, how is their card updated? Is that a voluntary thing? At what cost?
Why do you object to a registered voter database that is updated with eligibility?

No Problem

Yes when someone shows their ID, a scanner could confirm their status. Just like when a police officers scans your license to see if it is still valid and if there are any outstanding warrants.

There is no constitutional right to buy beer

The right to vote is a constitutionally protected right, not a privilege. As has been mentioned countless times the person's citizenship and voting status is checked during the registration process. There is no reason to make a person re-register each and every time they vote. That only makes the voting process more expensive with no improvement in outcomes. In other words, voter ID is simply wasteful government bureaucracy.

wasteful government bureaucracy

Conservatives always decry government as being a giant, worthless bureaucracy (of course, elect them, and they prove it to be true) that should be butchered to death at all cost... unless it involves voting, or women's bodies, or drugs, or the patriot act, or homeland security, etc etc, then they are perfectly and suddenly OK with creating new bureaucracies and government intrusions into people's lives. More double-standards.

There is no legal requirement to show an ID to buy alcohol

The legal requirement is on the STORE, which is forbidden to sell alcohol to people under 21, and they know that the state sends around decoys to try to catch store owners in the act of selling to minors.

Showing an ID is not a legal requirement for the buyer of alcohol; it's the store trying to protect itself from legal penalties.

I haven't been carded for ages. I think I was 26 years old the last time it happend. In fact, just this evening, I had a glass of wine with dinner at a restaurant, and nobody asked to see an ID. That's because I'm obviously over 21 and have been for more decades than I care to think.

Some states require photo I'D for

Medicaid. Don't know about other programs. The effect has been to deny access to the health care system to low income people. Since their lives might hang on getting access, we may assume laziness isn't the reason for getting ID. The incentive couldn't be any sharper, yet they go without ID. What does that tell us?

Poor Choices / Mentally Challenged

It tells me they are making poor choices and not taking personal responsibility for their lives, or they are mentally challenged.

Given the number of federal, state, local and charity programs, there is no excuse that they can not resolve this. If they were to walk into their local church, synagogue or other charity, I am certain that some helpful volunteer would assist if they asked. Or at least get them to social services.

So with all of these options open to assist people, what does this tell us about people who do not have photo ID's?

Ahh, there we go...

Appelen weighing in with the inevitable "poor choices" meme again, the only arrow left in his quiver. You people just can't fathom anyone living a life that doesn't fit your limited views. Constantly judging...


Maybe that is a key difference bewteen Conservatives and Liberals.

One promotes the importance of taking personal responsibility for your life and the other promotes blaming someone else for your life.

I am unapologetically on the "promotes the importance of taking personal responsibility for your life" side.

What does it tell us?

Not much. It doesn't tell us that they don't know how to find help, but that is one possibility. It also does not tell us that they were misinformed (whether deliberately or not) about the requirements for ID, are physically unable to get to where ID is offered, or that they are too busy to take the time, but those are all reasonable hypotheses.

Since the discussion is about voting rights, however, we can assume that the people involved are US citizens who are being disenfranchised solely because you think they "are making poor choices and not taking personal responsibility for their lives, or they are mentally challenged." We are not being told that explicitly, but that is how it pans out.

It also tells me that the discussion is being carried on with little regard for things like human dignity, but that's another matter altogether.

Automatic Registration

I'm curious about the automatic registration that is done by other countries and whether it could be done here. Possible issues:

1. We have a very large population compared to most developed countries. We also have a very *mobile* population which makes it hard to keep track of which citizen is allowed to vote in which area.
2. The technology problems wouldn't be small and after last year's ACA website debacle, no one should simply shrug them off. All of our experience with government databases show that they quickly become outdated and they're prone to error. And I do mean ALL.
3. All of the arguments about using ID, pro and con, are still in play. Will those who think that ID requirements are inherently racist drop that opposition? I'm skeptical.
4. We've had a run of data privacy breaches from government orgs. A nationwide database would be the mother of all hacking targets.

I find the idea intriguing but it wouldn't be some simple fix to pre-register everyone.

No, it's only photo ID laws

No, it's only photo ID laws that are provided by Republicans that are discriminatory... because by making it harder for non-whites to vote, Republicans do better in elections. It's a cold political calculation from a party that does nothing but. See Don Yelton, NC.

ID Laws

So if it's an ID law provided by Democrats, it would be non-discriminatory. Got it. This certainly seems like an opening to some good faith debate.

Notice that there haven't

Notice that there haven't really been any photo ID laws proposed by Democrats, except as legislative responses to GOP bills. If Democrats tried to pass a law that made it difficult for republicans or white people or the elderly to vote, I would be as vehemently opposed.

As noted

As I noted somewhere here, the only large group of people I have found that don't have a current photo ID are the old folks in the nursing homes, so the GOP is apparently ok with their not voting.


So you acknowledge that the GOP's efforts in this regard would actually disenfranchise people... and you are... OK with this? Because they're old?

Maybe Not

Apparently the folks in NC took this concern into account. Their Voter ID laws seems pretty rational and open.

My point is that I don't think their intent is to disenfranchise voters.

The real objection

Even if all of the technical issues could be resolved, I think that most people in the US would have a strong, visceral reaction against the idea of a national registry of citizens that would preclude automatic registration. Check out any discussion on a "national ID card" to see this in action. A lot of people might have no objection to such a requirement for people "not like me," but a universal, non-discriminatory registration system would be unacceptable to most.

I know there are such things, or analogous things, in other countries. There are, however, cultural objections to such a system in the US.


RB, I'm not sure I'm all in favor of a national registry. Or at least, I need to see a lot of thought and discussion about possible abuses and how to keep people safe. The hypothetical that comes to mind is a woman fleeing her abusive/creepy ex-boyfriend but she can't hide because her privacy isn't really guaranteed by the system. From what I understand, this can be a problem today because of the need for social security numbers for employment. A national database makes that worse. Not impossible, mind you, but it's not a trivial detail.

But, for the sake of debate, let's assume that's solvable. The real problem is getting people to keep their info updated. If someone changes address, it's a relatively simple step to notify the Post Office. How much you wanna bet that the compliance rate is far south of 100%? How do we improve that? I honestly have no idea.

quality not quantity

Again, we need quality in voters, not quantity – I hope everyone agrees. And if that is a given, then registering and obtaining proper papers and ID is a sign that people are interested and not just voting without a clue…


We have universal suffrage in the US based on citizenship and age. The only "interest" a citizen needs to demonstrate is their appearance at the polling place on election day. From what I can see, those who think that some kind of ID should be required are amongst the most clueless voters we have. Yet I would NOT try to prevent them from voting.


Maybe the reason is that in a consensus based system such as ours, there is very little reason to vote. Your vote just doesn't make a difference.

Any ID that proved both citizenship and current address

would have to created out of whole cloth.

Look at your driver's license. Where does it say that you're a U.S. citizen? You could be a foreigner here legally, maybe an immigrant who hasn't been here long enough to be naturalized or a corporate transfer here for a couple of years or a foreign student. All these people are entitled to driver's licenses.

Passports prove citizenship, but you have to submit either your birth certificate or naturalization papers, and they cost $140, which is half a week's wages for a low-income person. In addition, passports, which are valid for ten years, do not show your current address. You are supposed to pencil it in yourself.

So would the state provide free IDs? They would have to be free, because requiring people to buy an ID to vote would amount to a poll tax, and poll taxes are illegal. So let's say Minnesota starts requiring an ID that proves both citizenship and address. About four million IDs that would have to be created in the first year, and it wouldn't be a one-time expense, either, because new people would turn 18, move into the state, or become naturalized citizens every year.

Do the voter ID advocates have any proposals about how to pay for that? Or would they just cut education, social welfare, and infrastructure maintenance programs so that they wouldn't have to raise taxes?

The whole voter ID nonsense comes from the Republicans believing their own propaganda (that Democrats "bribe" poor, stupid voters by bribing them with welfare programs, as well as busing "illegal immigrants and welfare mothers from precinct to precinct"--an actual quote from someone on the Strib's website in the lead-up to the Voter ID ballot measure, and note the racist code words).

I've known a lot of immigrants, and they simply do not vote unless they are citizens. The right-wingers in this discussion might be interested to hear that I personally know three immigrants who implemented their long-delayed plans to become citizens specifically so they could vote against George W. Bush in 2004.

Let’s start with the beginning

It does seem that everyone agrees that more voters doesn’t mean better democracy – no one disputed this point of mine. Just to finish this off, I want to point out that Italy and Greece, where voting is mandatory, can hardly be listed as exemplary democracies. On the other hand, voting was not mandatory in the Soviet Union but it was always 99% - partially because they offered good beer at polling stations that was not available at other times and places…

To answer Mr. Ecklund’s points, no one created laws that intentionally target anyone specific nor do we need to do more to make anyone an integral part of the legislative and electoral process – it is the right and the responsibility of individuals to take part in anything they deem important and not violate the laws so they do not get into prison

Now it seems that this debate switched from voting participation to voter ID issue. So, Mr. Udland said that the registration process verifies citizenship and eligibility. Here is my question: How do they do it for people who do not have proper documents? OK, regardless of how it is done (because it must be done, right? so does anyone know how it is done?), to make everyone happy I am proposing to require the same documents that verify eligibility during registration process to be used during voting. This should make everyone happy, shouldn’t it?

In fact this will solve all the problems Mr. Hintz is listing (even though it is not clear why photo ID’s are used at all everywhere if it is so easy to fake them as he attests). So let’s not make this issue political or partisan but rather common sense: If something has eligibility requirements, people shall prove that they are eligible – that is how the world works…

Now, Democrats constantly accuse Republicans that they want to reduce participation so they would win. Logically, the opposite is also true: Democrats want to increase participation so they could win. On its own, it’s OK since it is natural for political parties to do everything to win. However, if my original postulate that greater voter participation doesn’t mean better election and better democracy is correct, I can’t see how Democrats can win this debate. Do they want to win because felons show up at the polling station set up in prison and vote? Is this how you see it, Mr. Udland? Enlighten me because, based on your generalization, I am clueless.

Don't we want ...

all people to vote as a national goal for citzen involvment ? Then open the door and end ideas that suppress the vote !

Voter Suppression

Any attempts by legislators to make it easier to vote will be met with resistance by republicans. Suppressing the vote is one of their four key approaches to maintaining legislative majorities in the face of highly unfavorable demographic trends. The other 3: gerrymandering, corporate control of media which frames dialogue, flooding elections with money (judicial majorities disassemble campaign finance laws and the Voting Rights Act). Any good republican or conservative strategist understands this. In fact they don't even try to hide the facts. Otherwise the Republican Party would already be irrelevant, a status that is pretty well baked into the demographic cake but will take another decade. You simply can't keep shoving wealth and fortune into the hands of rich old white men at the expense of everyone else and expect to fool the rest of the voting public forever.

Kind of

It looks like you are correct, there are a lot of rich old white men on this list. However there are women, minorities, young people, etc... And we consumers were more than happy to give most of them our money for the value that they or their companies provided us.

Now if the the GOP ever gives in and decides to reward all the people who violated our borders and budged in front of legal immigrants, who do you think the Latino voting block will shift to? Many of whom are Catholics and hard working small business owners.


Are you suggesting that they will shift their votes based on "freebies" to illegal aliens?

I would ask why this isn't racist, but the mental gyrations would be painful.


What does race have to do with that issue?

People from a similar country want their relatives who jumped the border to be given a pardon. They vote for the party that promises it.

Would it be a race issue if was Canadians instead?

What does race have to do with that issue?

My mind's ear hears the pitch of your voice rising about an octave as you say that.

First of all, "Latino" is a race. "Canadian" is a nationality, but not a race (a Francophone Quebecois is as Canadian as a Manitoba Métis, but they are not the same "race").

Second, you are assuming that the votes of Latinos are especially susceptible to being bought by "freebies." No? Then why were they singled out in your comment?

Third, "People of a similar country?" Really? All Latinos are one, regardless of whether they are descended from Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, or Colombians?

Fourth, "want their relatives?" Latinos, as a bloc, all have "relatives" who are illegals?

Fifth, recall that you said "freebies," not "pardon." We know what you meant, and no one is going to believe you meant "free entry into the US."

As dog whistles go, that was not even close.


I picked the Latino voting block because I think they are a demographic group that could switch allegiances very quickly once one key issue is removed. Time will tell.

"Otherwise the Republican Party would already be irrelevant, a status that is pretty well baked into the demographic cake but will take another decade. "

And actually I said. "Now if the the GOP ever gives in and decides to reward all the people who violated our borders and budged in front of legal immigrants, who do you think the Latino voting block will shift to?"" Freebie was your word. I meant reward. (ie pardon and give citizenship to)

By the way

By the way, no voice change. I am just always amazed that this group of commenters looks and finds racism every where.

I work with people of almost every race on a regular basis. Race is not an issue for me, I am just curious why it is such a big issue for the commenters on this site.

I do declare!

Honestly, why do people insist on making race such a big issue. It seems a fellow can't make a remark lumping all the members of an ethnic group together and suggesting that they are particularly malleable without someone finding racism.

It truly is a mystery.

I agree

Kind of like when the folks here say that the racial demographics are stacked against the Republicans? When in reality race has little to do with it.

The reality is that a few slight changes in policy by either side could change the votes significantly. And as we all know, immigration pardons could be one of those key policy changes. Time will tell.

Enlightening the clueless

I see some people haven't been able to resist the urge to re-enter the voter ID debate.

It's always been ironic that the first people we'd disenfranchise on the basis of dull intellect and ignorance would most promoters of voter ID laws if we were to do so. My experience arguing with these people for over a year was that I never ran into one that actually understood how the existing system works. Trying to explain that any fraud that might be taking place is beyond insignificant is a waste of time. They often think they're being clever when in fact they're being deliberately obtuse.

Liberals believe in universal suffrage whether we win elections or not. Liberals (i.e. democrats) accept election results whether we win or lose. Republicans on the other hand don't consider any election they lose to be legitimate and don't think people who won't vote for them should be allowed to vote. It's the difference between actually believing in Democracy and not. It's a dictatorial impulse and such impulses always arise from the conservative/reactionary end of the spectrum for a variety of reason. This shouldn't surprise, but we need to resist it.

It is a little tedious that a bunch of people who've never taken the time to understand how our government and election process actually works, and who don't really believe in Democracy, pretend to be ideal citizens; but we live in a free country so we just have to put up with it.

At any rate explaining something to the "clueless" isn't a waste of time if such people are intellectually honest and want to learn. However, if the clueless in question go out of their way to find unreliable information and insist on debating on behalf of their unreliable information and ignorance, efforts to explain are simply a wast of time.

The benefit of the argument is never to clue the deliberately clueless, the arguments are for those watching the debate who might trying to learn something. In this case, we already had this argument at length, and it's on the record.

Voter Disenfrancisement is Prevalent

Here is a personal example about the difficulty of voting in the United States.

I moved to California in 2000. I very much wanted to vote in that Bush-Gore election that everyone was talking about.

California made it so easy! Just go to the DMV for your license plates and you can be registered. So, I registered.

But, the convenient DMV was not in the county where I voted. And, California never bothered to authorize funds to transfer my voter registration information between counties. So, I go to my polling place and am told I am not registered even though I registered.

Unless you live in the same place your whole life, you will find yourself in a situation like this.

If either major party was competent and really cared, these types of issues would be easy to fix. Democracy is not their priority.

Great piece, Eric Black.

Example of clueless....

Just to round out the thought: in the last two election cycles we had people show up at the polls and defiantly pull out and display their drivers licenses even though it was not required or requested. Now this is actually quite a display of extreme ignorance on many levels, it didn't even conform to the ID laws they thought they were supporting. Yet no one tried to stop these people from voting. Furthermore I don't know any democrats or liberals who would want to stop these people from voting, even they clearly were not there to vote for democrats.

Driver's License

For years I've had people come in to the polling place and pull out their driver's license and present it to the roster judge. I just tell my judges to respectfully take the ID, verify the name, and hand it back. No harm, no foul.

Don't register guns

If I don't need to register for my gun, why do I need to register for my vote?

Facts and arguments

Mr. Musich, have you read my post? Is Greece a better democracy because more people vote there? Was the Soviet Union better because 99% voted there? Is this what you want?

Mr. Pappas, rich old white men are the ones in the nursing homes without ID’s – I guess Republicans want to disenfranchise them… As for Republican party being irrelevant (I guess you can’t wait for this to happen) we (at least those who pay attention) already know what happens – one party dictatorship like in the USSR.

Mr. Udstrand, I know the easiest way to argue is to claim that all your opponents are obtuse meaning that roughly half the country falls under this category. So can you actually argue with arguments rather than proclaim that you and the Democrats are always right? Just read my posts and go item by item. I also wonder where you get all your information. You see, you said that “Liberals (i.e. democrats) accept election results whether we win or lose.” But I think it was Gore in 2000 who first conceded the election and then went back to demand recount and sue, right? Just get your facts right, please.

Half the country?

ILya, you're assuming that all conservatives are clueless, that's not a smart assumption to make. The number of reactionary/Tea Pary/Libertarian conservatives responsible for some of the duller public policy initiatives is actually a smaller percentage of conservatives. Mr. Swift will tell you for instance that all but a select few of conservatives are Republicans in Name Only, or RINOS. The voter ID laws weren't cooked up by half the population. They emerged from a small group of ALEC conservatives in Texas, and in MN they were defeated by 54% of the vote, many of whom were conservative voters who don't like people messing with their right to vote.


I think the voter id and no gay marriage amendments failed for the same reason.

Citizens were telling politicians that we elect them to address and resolve these issues.

They were not saying necessarily that they were pro-LGBT marriage or anti-voter id. Some were simply saying... This does not deserve to be an amendment.

I might agree with the

I might agree with the analysis, though given that no statewide MNGOP candidates are running on (or even talking about) gay marriage and voter ID, I think that public support for marriage equality and public rejection of voter disenfranchisement efforts are what actually won the day... not a disagreement over how (legislatively) to deal with these issues.


Paul, I did not assume anything but if, as you said, voter ID was defeated by 54% of the vote, it means that 46% supported that and 46% is very close to a half.. just as I said. So are they all obtuse/reactionary/Tea Party/Libertarians...

Not math

I don't think 46% of the population (i.e. conservative voters) are clueless, and I never said they were. I'm talking about extremist who still want to re-hash these debates and who rely on arguments riddled with misinformation and even some outright deception to do so. Most republicans have moved on which is why these issues are not part of this election cycle.

ILya can make judgments based on voting record alone, I haven't done that and wouldn't recommend it.

Almost all of these republican initiatives from magic economic theories to voter ID laws target conservative voters with sophisticated and well funded campaigns of fear mongering, misinformation, and deception. I don't expect conservatives to any more immune to such campaigns than liberals. Liberals have their moments as well, many remained skeptical of climate change in the beginning for instance, and we have our glutton free diets. Opra extolled the miracle of the "Secret" a few years ago. Basically, just because someone casts a certain vote we don't like doesn't mean they're clueless.

And again, even if we were to decide that 46% of our voters are clueless, liberals would NOT disenfranchise them. It's actually kind of bizarre, this conservative impulse to restrict votes seem to acknowledge the fact that the majority of voters, if allowed to vote, would cast liberal votes. In other words there seem to be an acknowledgement in there that conservative voters are a minority and would lose elections if everyone were allowed to vote. Of course the fact that they think it's appropriate to rig the system in order to win elections brings us back to my observation that on a basic level, they don't actually believe in democracy.

At any, our discussions here clearly illustrate the fact that we need to be very careful about giving certain people the power to decided who gets to vote and who doesn't.

Math and psycology

If we let all schoolchildren vote, thus increasing the number of voters, absolute majority of them will vote for those who promise them smart phones rather than those who will advise them to work hard and earn their phones…

So again, going back to the beginning, we do not need more voters, we need more informed voters.

You don't get the American Experiment

do you, Ilya? Information is in the eye of the beholder. Essentially, all your advocating is that people should believe in your ideology...if they don't, they're not informed voters. Anyone that is a citizen of this country has the right to vote despite your obvious bias in establishing a criteria to do so. And I trust that you will admit that establishing some sort of baseline intelligence test to vote would do as much damage to the GOP voting bloc as you assume or hope it would do to the left. Just be honest about it...when Democratic voters turn out, the GOP loses, and everyone knows that's why voter suppression is so crucial to what passes for conservatism these days.