Fixing the US’s Voter Participation Problem

117 million people didn’t vote in the 2016 Presidential election. The US has a massive voter participation problem, but it’s not in the way you might think. The US actually has pretty good voter turnout rate among registered voters. Statistics showing the US with 55–65% turnout rate for Presidential elections are actually based on a flawed set of numbers. That percentage is derived from the number of people who vote compared to the entire voting age population. The percentage of registered voters who actually vote is between 80 and 90 percent. The problem with people not voting lies in the registration system.

The registration system, simply put, has lots of problems. In a time where virtually everything is done online, there’s no means of online registration in 13 states, including states like North Carolina and Texas. For most states, the voters must register far in advance. Only 17 states have same day voter registration. Only 11 states have automatic registration, and in every state they’re tied to interaction with state government agencies. Most of the states with automatic registration do it through getting a drivers license. 2–3 million were unable to vote due to administrative errors alone in 2008. During that same election, 9 million voters were turned away because they didn’t meet the registration deadline.

There are additional reasons why voting rates are low: Felon disenfranchisement. A policy proposal that has significant impact from the American public is the re-establishment of voting rights for former felons. About 60% of the American public support such a move, and the law almost always passes when put on the ballot as an initiative. Many conservative politicians have backed the measure, and support among Democrats is universal. In 2012, 5.5 million former felons are denied suffrage, due to restrictive state laws.

Current laws are all over the map. 2 states allow imprisoned felons to vote. 16 states allow felons to vote after release. 3 states allow felons to vote after release and parole. 18 states allow felons to vote after release and probation. 8 states allow felons to vote under differing specific circumstances. A federal law denying these practices, but still banning prisoners from voting would expand rights to nearly 6 million people. Letting prisoners vote would expand that number to about 8.5 million.

Solution One: The tough sell

The fix to the problem of low voter turnout could be addressed by nationalizing some aspects of voting in a new Voting Rights Act. Ideally, a law would automatically register someone to vote from birth, similar to how every new person born is given a Social Security number. More people would be able to vote if we made the time we hold elections more convenient. Moving election day to a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday would help, as would making Election Day a Federal Holiday. It’s hard to estimate how much this would impact voter turnout, but more modest reforms would have the effect of adding tens of millions of new voters. It’d require many politicians to vote against their interests, and would be a major expansion of federal power over voting.

Solution Two: The sensible reforms

Another reform that has made voter participation increase is the option to vote by mail. Washington has a system where everyone is sent a ballot, and it’s been a wild success. Washington has turnout 13% higher than the national average. Giving voters the option to vote by mail or in person would drastically increase turnout by similar numbers. Adopting same day voter registration on a national level alone would increase turnout by about 5%. A reform with these two measures would increase voter turnout by 18%. With adding in a federal law that allows former felons to vote, there would be approximately 30 million new voters. Some politicians would vote against their interests, but the political will for such a move would be very strong.

Solution 3: The doomed solution

Another reason people don’t vote is they live in districts and states where their vote doesn’t matter. Republicans in Nancy Pelosi’s district likely don’t feel compelled to vote when their Senator, State legislators, and Presidential vote will all be drastically in the minority. The same is true of voters in rural Utah. Abolishing the electoral college would give these people more of a reason to vote. This is probably the hardest measure to pass since it’d require an interstate compact or constitutional amendment.

Ideally, some President would take elements from all three to craft a Voting Rights Act for a new era. It’d transform American politics and get tens of millions of people voting for the first time-a move unrivaled in US history.

Written by

Libertarian Socialist who writes about politics, economics, philosophy religion & history. Former Newspaper Columnist.

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