5 Ways To Fix America’s Dismal Voter Turnout Problem

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICH PEDRONCELLI
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICH PEDRONCELLI

Voter turnout in the U.S. during the last midterm election hit the lowest point since the 1940s. The number of Americans heading to the polls each election has been declining for the last fifty years and lawmakers have recently been pushing efforts to keep even more people away from the polls.

People do not exercise their right to vote for various reasons, some of which are easier to solve than others. According to a U.S. Census report from 2013, 14 percent of nonvoting respondents were unable to participate because of an illness or disability, 8.6 percent were out of town, 12.7 percent did not like the candidates or campaign issues and almost 19 percent were too busy. Some people cannot take time off from work on a Tuesday in November, which has led lawmakers including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to call for making Election Day a federal holiday. Others may not feel engaged in politics or informed enough to vote, while 5.85 million U.S. citizens are prohibited from voting due to a felony conviction on their records.

Voting advocates, including those who spoke at the Elections and Voting Summit last week, have been developing and pushing for new ways to get more people to the polls. Unlike laws that restrict access through voter ID laws, shorter registration and early voting periods and disenfranchising felons, these proposals are likely to have support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and would not be difficult to implement to get voters to turn out in higher numbers.

Make registering to vote easier

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams (R) CREDIT: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley
Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams (R) CREDIT: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

The first step in getting more people to vote: register more people to vote. While many voter expansion supporters have advocated for same day or automatic voter registration, voting advocates agreed that it is not likely to be a reality in all 50 states anytime soon. In the meantime, more states have been pushing to allow people to register online, a proposal that has bipartisan support. As of December, 20 states had implemented online voter registration and four others had passed legislation to implement the technology. A number of Republican election chiefs have supported the technology, including Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams (R) who told ThinkProgress that his state has developed a website which allows voters to register in minutes and helps avoid errors that occur when poll workers attempt to read voters’ handwriting. Ohio’s Jon Husted, notorious for attempting to suppress votes, has also recently called for online registration.

Voting advocates have also made efforts to register and restore voting rights to convicted felons in states where it is not automatic. Mark Listes, the founder of Virginia’s Revive My Vote, said he has developed a digital workspace that he uses to connect volunteers with convicted felons in Virginia to expand their voting rights. “There is no reason that an administrative difficulty should keep someone from being able to vote,” he told ThinkProgress. “Our program really creatively uses a low amount of funding and resources and it mobilizes us in a way that’s helps us make actual change.”

Streamline and simplify voting

Voters wait in line to vote early at Little Rock, Ark., polling place Monday, Nov. 3, 2014, in advance of the Tuesday election. CREDIT: AP Photo/Danny Johnston
Voters wait in line to vote early at Little Rock, Ark., polling place Monday, Nov. 3, 2014, in advance of the Tuesday election. CREDIT: AP Photo/Danny Johnston

Voters can already use their smartphones in some cities to simplify daily tasks like tracking how long they have to wait for a bus or train. So why shouldn’t information about polling places be available online? Joe Kiniry, the principal investigator with computer science company Galois, said that while he was working in Denmark, he helped to build a system voters could use to figure out the length of lines at polling places. “Of course it’s doing that by watching people’s cell phones as they walk into the polling place and figuring out how long it took you to get to the front of the line, how long it took you to leave,” he said. “So in the adoption of this cheap, easy technology… we’ve now traded off the cost and efficiency of an election with the privacy of voters.”

Kiniry also discussed the possibility of a system which would track in real-time election machines that malfunction or stop working. “If a machine goes offline, everybody knows it,” he said, although he added that there is likely to be resistance from vendors who do not want to reveal trade secrets.

“We know that better technology can help everything from ballot design issues to long lines, so we need to fund the properly technology for voting and the security of our ballot,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) said at the summit.

Allow people to vote online

Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip casts an online ballot in the municipal election in Tallinn, Estonia, Monday, Oct. 10, 2005, at the start of a three-day period allowing online voting. CREDIT: AP Photo
Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip casts an online ballot in the municipal election in Tallinn, Estonia, Monday, Oct. 10, 2005, at the start of a three-day period allowing online voting. CREDIT: AP Photo

While the ease of voting on the internet is appealing, privacy experts have cautioned against rushing to implement the technology due to cybersecurity concerns. Still, online voting is already standard procedure in some countries, such as Estonia, and U.S. lawmakers have been moving toward incorporating more technology in our elections.

But Kiniry is also working on an internet voting study which is looking into a form of remote voting that uses an “end-to-end verifiability” program. If the project is able to meet security and usability standards, it could be used by the public to vote from their computers or internet-enabled devices, he said. “You often find that a system can be secure or it can be usable. We’re trying to figure out how it could be both.”

Hire invested and engaged poll workers

Lydia Harris, a temporary worker at the Sacramento Registrar of Voters, looks over a mail-in ballot before it is sent to be counted in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday Nov. 12, 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Lydia Harris, a temporary worker at the Sacramento Registrar of Voters, looks over a mail-in ballot before it is sent to be counted in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday Nov. 12, 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Many of the problems associated with Election Day disasters involve poll workers who are not properly trained for their jobs. To ensure that every vote is cast and counted correctly, Rep. Ellison recommended hiring people who will invest more in the position. “We need skilled — and I believe paid — poll workers,” he said. “The richest country in the history of the world shouldn’t be relying on mostly elderly citizens to volunteer to run elections. We need some stipends and training”

Get people excited about politics between elections

POPVOX allows voters to comment on pending legislation and provides the comments to lawmakers. CREDIT: POPVOX.com
POPVOX allows voters to comment on pending legislation and provides the comments to lawmakers. CREDIT: POPVOX.com

If more people are involved with democracy and politics between election cycles, it will lead to a higher voter participation rate. That’s the theory that a number of entrepreneurs used when explaining how their technologies will increase voter turnout. Rachna Choudhry helped found POPVOX, a civic engagement platform which allows people to send online letters to lawmakers to contribute their opinions on specific legislation. “We’re trying to put meat on the bones of legislation,” she said. “Legislation is dry and people don’t understand it, but when you read a story about why that matters to someone, that really makes a difference and helps someone connect with that legislation.”

Also founded to increase political engagement, Civinomics is a website that allows voters to answer polling questions while reading online news. “By letting people vote on what they read, listen or watch in the news, Civinomics will make democracy a part of our daily lives,” cofounder Manu Koenig told ThinkProgress. “This will increase the likelihood people vote in official elections as well.”