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

The United States has some unusual features and bugs in its election system that help explain why our voter turnout is so low.

In the United States, the responsibility is on the citizen to get registered.
REUTERS/John Gress

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)