If the United States and all the other countries of the world were to line up by voter participation rate, we would find ourselves ranked lower than war-torn countries like Sierra Leone, massive countries like Indonesia, and baby democracies like East Timor.
Despite our status as the world’s oldest democracy, just over half (53.6 percent) of voting-age Americans cast a ballot in 2012. In fact, of 169 countries ranked by turnout level, the U.S. has the ignominious honor of taking 120th place.
There are plenty of reasons for our fledgling turnout rate. We hold elections more frequently than most countries. Many voters find it hard to take time off during a Tuesday in early November to vote. An increasing number of states have passed new laws designed to inhibit certain people from casting a ballot. The list goes on.
Other countries have been able to achieve far higher levels of participation with the help of various initiatives designed to encourage citizens to vote. Some, particularly compulsory voting, may be right for the United States and others may not, but it is instructive to consider how other countries have structured their elections to make them as accessible as possible.
Here are a number of these reforms, in no particular order:
1. Automatically registering everyone to vote. Some countries like France (71.2 percent turnout) and Sweden (82.6 percent turnout) automatically register their citizens to vote, removing a major hurdle in the electoral process. France automatically registers citizens when they turn 18, while Sweden and other Scandinavian countries use tax registration rolls to produce voter lists.
2. Weekend voting. Many countries including Australia (81.0 percent turnout), Greece (69.4 percent turnout), and Brazil (80.6 percent turnout) put Election Day on the weekend. This helps ensure that as many people as possible can participate and won’t be prevented by work requirements.
3. Nationwide Election Day registration. Canada (53.8 percent turnout), for example, allows citizens who haven’t registered to do so when they get to the polls on Election Day, rather than barring them from participating.
4. Lower voting age. Not all nations set the voting age at 18. Many like Brazil (80.6 percent turnout), Nicaragua (71.8 percent turnout), and Austria (75.6 percent turnout) allow 16-year-olds to vote.
5. Compulsory voting. Dozens of countries, ranging from Uruguay (96.1 percent turnout) to the Dominican Republic (70.2 percent turnout) to Singapore (55.3 percent turnout), require citizens to vote. Some of the countries actually enforce the requirement, usually with a small fine for people who don’t cast a ballot; $20 in Australia for those without a good excuse, for instance. Other countries either don’t have penalties for non-voters or don’t enforce penalties on the books.
6. Online voting. A few countries have started to dip their toes into the online voting water. Most notably, Estonia (55.5 percent turnout) has been allowing its citizens to cast a ballot online since 2005. In 2011, a quarter of all Estonians utilized the option. They have yet to face major security breaches in the system.
7. Fewer elections. Elections are often unsynchronized in the United States, with local elections taking place on different dates than federal elections, to say nothing of primaries, recalls, and the like. Many other countries hold all their elections on a single day, in part to avoid voter fatigue.