By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
One of many things I learned from Walter Dean Burnham during my years at MIT was the importance of voting turnout had on electoral outcome. Much of the history of electoral politics in the 20th century is of efforts to depress turnout. This wasn’t limited to just trying to disenfranchise people of color – as serious as those efforts were.
But it also extended to efforts to suppress and undercount certain types of votes – those of people who lived in cities, for example.
Though most Americans are inured to our screwy electoral system, this situation looks very strange to the rest of the world, to say the least, as the NY Times highlighted in a video and short post today, ‘It’s Like You Want to Stop People From Voting’: How U.S. Elections Look Abroad:
Over to that short NYT post:
Turnout this election is projected to be the highest in a century, and voters are doing everything they can to make their voices count. Waiting in line for hours (even if you’re the mayor). Voting in person despite the pandemic because you fear that your mail-in ballot could be one of the 1.02 million that might be discarded. And casting a ballot despite the potential that someone with a semiautomatic rifle will be watching you at your polling place.
But, does voting have to be so … hard?
Not really. Just watch the video above and you’ll see it’s not like this in other democratic countries around the world. Voting in other democracies is a snap. And, if you’re really lucky, you might score a “democracy sausage.”
When we showed voters from around the world what American elections are like in practice, they weren’t impressed. But they were impressed with our resilience and determination. So, while the world’s “oldest democracy” may be a bit creaky these days, let’s be clear: Go vote! That’s really the best way to make a change.
Why Is this: Why is US Turnout So Low?
Those of us who have long studied the NYT’s failure to highlight salient issues in its often over-the-top ‘comprehensive’ coverage are not surprised the paper doesn’t attempt an answer this basic question.
So I will.
Answer; both major legacy parties benefited. By increasing the size of the party of non-voters, relative to Democrats or Republicans. public policy shifted to the right. And neither major political party needed to worry about catering to the needs of ordinary people. As the twentieth century progressed and became the twentieth-first. and elections became more expensive at the same time that publicly financing them was taken off the table, the importance of donors also increased. And so we find ourselves where we are now.
For the most part, until the present election, turnout has been on a steady downward slope. since 1896. There were some exceptions of course: take the New Deal, for example, and the tiny blip following electoral aftermath of Our Law Professor President. And despite ongoing suppression efforts, it is of course expected to blow out in 2020.
Three Simple Reforms To Increase U.S. Voting Turnout.
As presently envisioned. the Increase Voting Turnout Act (IVTA) would have at least three provisions. Feel free readers, to comment on my suggestions, as well as to put forward your own.
1, Make voting mandatory. Make voting a mandatory civic obligation, as it is in Australia, where there is a minor fine levied for not voting. Voters who would be most hurt by the need to pay a fine can avoid it by simply voting.
Australia allows for a none-of-the-above option, and so should the U.S. If anything, mandatory voting would embody a small inherent bias against the rich, who could afford to risk the fine they would incur by not voting. So be it. It’s more than about time that our electoral system should cease to do their bidding.
There may be some constitutional objections raised to mandatory voting and I confess I have not given much thought to what they may be and how they may be countered. But let’s first get the ball rolling, by introducing the IVTA legislation. The usual suspects can then crawl out of their holes and file the inevitable ‘Constitutional” challenges.
2. Make Election Day a holiday. Those voters who can ill-afford taking time off to vote avoid the problem by simply not voting. We can fix that. Let’s make Election Day a holiday.
Now, we can quibble as to how often we should give everyone the day off. And please, don’t let Democrats introduce the inevitable qualification requirement. Give everyone the day off – no need to prove you used it for voting.
We can perhaps trust people to do the right thing. And if they don’t, Americans are underholidayed, especially compared to their counterparts in countries with similar incomes. No big cost to letting everyone enjoy one more day of holiday.
So, for starters I propose we create a biennial federal holiday. Let’s be wildly original and call it National Election Day, so we can vote in national elections for Congress and the President.
Too expensive? Well, India manages. As does France. As do I am sure many other countries I cannot now recall.
3. Shift the Registration Presumption. As things presently stand, in many places you are presumed not to be allowed to vote in an election unless you have registered to vote.
Why is that? Why is it presumed you haven’t the right to vote unless you have registered. Stated rationale: curbing voter fraud. Real rationale: vote suppression.
Why don’t we shift the presumption?
Instead of as is needing to prove one has registered. how about shifting that presumption so that opponents of you casting your vote would be the ones who would need to would be able to challenge – and prove you lacked- your right to vote?
Let’s make alls states register everyone who’s legally eligible to vote. Some of them already do so.
And going forward, let’s go further. When you’re you’re born in the USA. you’re given a birth certificate. How about giving you your very own voter identification number at the same time? Then, eighteen years (or whatever number we choose), you can go to the polls and vote.
Note that if you had done something to lose your right to vote – been convicted of a felony, for example – prison authorities could still challenge the presumption that you could vote when you showed up at the polls.
The Bottom Line
These three measures would increase turnout, going forward, whether there is a Trump name on the ballot or not. (It sure hasn’t increased because voters are suddenly enthusiastic about voting for Joe Biden).
I can’t resist adding that it’s not as if Americans don’t know how to vote when there is something to vote for. In the middle of the nineteenth century, turnout rates averaged in the 80s – compared to the 50-60s we see today.
So, let’s get them back up there.
What are we waiting for?