The United States has a voting turnout problem. US voting turnout is much lower than other developed countries: only 40-60 percent of the country votes in each election. Worse still, low voting turnout isn’t a problem equal among all groups. Older and wealthier whites vote at much higher rates than other groups and thus get a disproportionate voice in politics. To fix this problem we must implement strategies to make voting easier and more rewarding.
The American voting system is currently very inefficient. The burden of registration is put on citizens, not on the government; registration requires filling out confusing forms, wasting time, and having a form of photo ID. Voting is a burden as well, as it requires mid-week time off work.
We need to implement strategies similar to the Motor Voter Act, where voters can register to vote at the same time they are getting or renewing their licenses, which require small changes that have a big impact to fix these efficiency problems.
One way to do this is to have a better transportation system to the polls or caucuses. Many voters are literally unable to make it to the polls due to transportation issues; this disproportionately affects low-income voters. A grassroots private sector solution or a government-funded program to help with transportation issues could alleviate this problem.
Another solution could be moving Election Day to the weekend or making it a national holiday. Currently, Election Day is on a Tuesday, which falls in the middle of the workweek. This is inconvenient to navigate for most voters but impossible for some. Either moving it to the weekend (less politically complicated but with fewer positive effects) or making it a national holiday (more of a political headache but with greater payoff) would help.
Another solution requires more policy change, but could have the biggest effects of all: we could enact an automatic voter registration system similar to the one in Germany. This puts the burden of voting back on the government and instantly increases voting turnout.
Finally, we could mandate same day registration in all states. The states that currently have same day registration on Election Day consistently have higher turnout than other states that do not. If we were to make these policies a national standard, voting turnout would increase.
At this point, some may argue that these strategies don’t go far enough. Why, they may ask, can we not simply implement a mandatory voting system like Australia and instantly boost voting turnout? While this is a nice hypothetical, it’s merely a hypothetical.
Mandatory voting isn’t a politically realistic solution. Only 21% of Americans support mandatory voting. Moreover, this number would probably go down if the pollsters were to look at support by party. Increased voter turnout would have disastrous effects for the Republican Party, as the majority of non-voters lean liberal. Thus, it is quite unlikely that any Republican representatives would support any measure to enact it.
And even if it were a realistic measure, it wouldn’t be a good one. Implementing mandatory voting without first constructing the changes proposed above to make voting less demanding would put undue stress on the very people that many proponents of mandatory voting may want to aid. Instead we must propose solutions to make voting more efficient and accessible.
But these can’t be our only solutions.
The current American electorate is apathetic and under-informed. While we can lower the costs of voting by making it more efficient, we must also increase the rewards. Strategies making voting more interesting, exciting, and relevant must also be enforced to make voting turnout not just higher, but more meaningful.
One way to do this is to make voting more competitive. Some scholars argue that “safe” districting, closed elections, and private funding of elections decreases the meaningful choices voters have while voting. They suggest that increasing competitive districting, holding open primaries and elections, and augmenting public funding of election would fight against voter apathy.
Another solution is some sort of voter education program. Whether done privately or publicly, through an educational initiative or a media campaign, in schools or out, the voters need to be educated on the issues, candidates, and policies important to each election.
A final answer could be altering the rhetoric of issues to be more interesting and dynamic. Currently the media focuses on the interesting aspects of presidential campaigns and makes them sensational and dynamic for viewers. They could sensationalize other more important parts of government, such as the policy process and international events, in the same way. Doing this would make more Americans interested and engaged in the day-to-day aspects of politics and thus more likely to vote.
We must enact solutions to make voting easier and more rewarding. Small-scale fixes are realistic and necessary ways to attack the United States’ voting turnout problem.