Ninety-one percent of Americans believe that voting is important to good citizenship.
So why did only 56 percent of the voting age population show up for the 2016 Presidential election?
Because we’ve made it more difficult for people to access the ballot box. The real threat to democracy is that too many eligible voters do not vote. To ensure that the government reflects the will of the people, every voter should be able to easily vote.
Voter turnout varies widely among different racial, ethnic, and age groups. Far too many communities of color, lower socio-economic communities, and youth or elderly citizens of voting age are kept away from the polls. Structural roadblocks are too often used to disenfranchise many in these communities.
Looking to other nations with higher voter turnout can help us shed some light on ways to close the gap between voter registration and voter participation. Innovations in voter participation must look to these communities to ensure that they are given an equitable opportunity to vote. Our democracy must be representative of the people.
Automatic Voter Registration
In nations that have some of highest rates of voter engagement in the world – much higher than the U.S. – citizens are automatically added to voter registries. Germany, for example, automatically registers citizens when they become eligible, or, like Australia, aggressively seeks for its citizens to opt out of to their voter registration.
If we were to adopt this system, anyone who interacts with agencies such as the Missouri Department of Motor Vehicles will be automatically registered to vote (unless that person asks not to be). Moving should not prevent anyone from voting.
Not only is this solution more convenient for poll workers, it gives people more choices. When voters have more choices, they have more freedom. When people have faith in the system that allows them to vote, it instills even more faith in our democracy.
Twelve states have already approved automatic voter registration, and the move has resulted in a dramatic increase in participation. Voter registration rates have quadrupled in many states. In Oregon, the overall registration rate went up 10 percent. Additionally, studies show automatic voter registration costs less and reduces inaccuracies in voter registration.
Every election day, many Americans who planned on voting are unable to for a variety of reasons. These include being unable to get off work, being unable to find childcare or running out of time in hour-long poll lines. Even though countries such as Australia, Germany and France vote on weekends or national holidays, voting in the U.S. occurs on Tuesdays. This creates barriers for millions of people — especially working-class Americans and elderly Americans.
For many, a typical Tuesday includes driving kids to school, fighting rush-hour traffic, staying after-hours to finish a project, grocery shopping for an entire family, and helping children with homework. Squeezing in an hour or two to go vote is not feasible for many hard-working Americans.
A simple way to improve this situation is for Missouri to join the ranks of the 37 states that offer early voting. This allows people with scheduling conflicts to vote a few weeks before an election. Early voting, additionally, creates shorter lines on Election Day.
Right now, Missourians can vote before Election Day as an absentee voter if they are able to prove that they will be unavailable on Election Day due to travel or other major event. But that still requires an in-person visit to file a ballot during normal working hours.
However, early voting alone will not fix the country’s turnout problem. Registered voters do face obstacles at the polls, but some Americans struggle to register in the first place.
Same-Day Voter Registration
Currently in Missouri, voters have to register about a month prior to an election, despite having the technology for same-day registration. The one-month deadline often keeps eligible voters (mainly young people) from exercising their constitutional rights on Election Day. Studies have shown that average voter turnout is 10 percent higher in states that offer same-day registration. This is essential to ensure that more voters are able to make their voices heard.
Perhaps the most ambitious, but also most effective, option to increase voting is to invest in statewide (and nationwide) voter education. If we want to increase participation in democracy, we must invest in the civic education of our people from an early age.
While the vast majority of Americans feel that voting is important to being a good citizen, just 39 percent say that voters are “knowledgeable about candidates and issues” and 56 percent have little or no confidence in the political wisdom of the American people. Most Americans admit to not knowing enough about what they’re voting on and have an even larger distrust that their neighbors do, either. Part of the responsibility can be left up to the individual to educate him or herself on the issues. But part of the responsibility should be built into our school system.
A recent government assessment found that only 24 percent of high school seniors (many of whom would be of age to vote) performed at proficiency for basic civics knowledge. This suggests that there is room for improvement and a definitive need to prepare upcoming generations of voters with the civic education and critical thinking skills that will benefit them in the voting booth. When we educate our youth on the process and its importance, we provide a solid foundation for civic engagement and a brighter future for our democracy.
Voting is perhaps the most fundamental right that Americans have. It is time that Missouri empower our voters and make it easier for people to exercise their right to vote.