by Osa Flory
League of Women Voters of the Northampton Area
Reprinted with permission from the Daily Hampshire Gazette
According to Webster’s Dictionary, “democracy is a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” One of the articulated goals of the United States is to promote democracy around the world and indeed there have been a number of elections held across the globe during the past twelve months: Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Haiti, Palestine, Liberia. The results of these elections are not always the outcome desired by US foreign policy but they are the expression of the people in those countries and should be respected.
One factor, however, should concern us all: the voter turnout in these countries tends to be higher than that of the United States. It may surprise you to know that, according to a study made by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the U.S. is well below average in voter turnout. Italy heads the list at 92.5% This figure represents great consistency in electoral participation in Italy maintained over 14 elections and 50 years. A random sampling reveals that in Indonesia 88% of the people vote, in Australia 84%, in the Czech Republic 82%, in Germany 80%, Israel 80%, Palestine 75%, the U.K. 75%, Japan 69%. At the time the sampling was taken voter turnout in the US was at 48%. By the 2004 Presidential election it had risen to 60% – almost half the people in this country do not avail themselves of the privilege of participating in the government of the country. Is this a cause for concern? What are the reasons for the low turnout? What can be done to improve it?
There would seem to be two main barriers to increasing voter turnout: physical or legal barriers and lack of motivation. Removing physical and legal barriers to voting is possibly the easier of the two to remedy. Laws vary by state. Here within Massachusetts, the League of Women Voters has suggested a number of reforms that might make registration and voting easier and more accessible. Some of the most promising are:
a) Permit unconditional absentee voting by amending the Massachusetts Constitution. This amendment is endorsed by Secretary of State William Galvin and will be considered in May by the legislature. It would increase access to voting for the elderly, the sick and the handicapped, and those whose jobs are far from their polling places. Everyone in the State of Oregon votes by mail.
b) Allow voter registration at polling places. Massachusetts requires registration 20 days prior to election day. This denies voting to those whose interest peaks in the two week period before the vote. Evidence suggests that those states with cut off dates closer to election day experience a higher voter turnout. There are 6 states that permit Election Day Registration: Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming. The voter turnout in these states was 78%, 18 percentage points higher than the country overall.
c) Expand recruitment of poll workers. The average age of poll workers is 72 years. 35 other states allow hiring of poll workers who live in other jurisdictions.
d) Expand the right to leave work to vote or alternatively allow voting at alternative polling places. Voting at any center provides better access to voting for citizens who work far from their place of residence. If there is concern about the voter’s legitimacy, there could be a system of provisional voting, with confirmation to follow.
These suggestions should be given serious consideration. For instance in Larimer County, Colorado, there are voting centers that are open to any voter regardless of their precinct. Also, early and absentee voting is encouraged. In 2004, one third of voters voted early and one-third voted absentee. There were no lines at the polls on election day.
Ease of voting would also help the motivational factors. If there were no legal or perceived obstacles to voting, it would be more difficult to offer a valid reason for not voting. There are several countries in the world where voting is mandatory; for example anyone in Peru and Costa Rica who fails to vote without good reason is fined. Sometimes people claim that a vote would make no difference; but we know this to be totally false from recent, very close results. Sometimes an election turns on a single vote. Voting counts. Only by participating in elections can we influence the decisions concerning our health care, our housing, our privacy, our environment and our foreign policy. The fact remains that not enough US citizens respect the privilege of voting by assuming this responsibility. This should be everyone’s concern. We should urge our friends and neighbors to vote, regardless of their party affiliation. Good government depends on citizen guidance and participation.