Voter turnout hits all time low: Three ways to increase participation

By Forrest Hill
Published June 29th 2006 in American Chronicle
Editorial note: In the section "Registration in High School", Hawaii, not Vermont, is the state with an existing 16-year-old registration policy.

After a dismal turnout in the California June primary, in which less then 30 percent of the registered voters participate (and only 21 percent of all eligible voters), it is time we implemented fundamental policy changes to encourage citizens to vote.

While I believe the lack of political diversity and our winner-take-all voting system are the main reasons for the lack of participation in our "democratic process", there are several steps we could take immediately to help increase turnout at the polls. These include Election Day voter registration, allowing 16 year olds to register, and changing our restrictive ballot access laws.

Election Day Registration

Today, six states allow Election Day registration; they are New Hampshire, Maine, Minnesota, Idaho, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Findings from several studies show that Election Day voter registration in these states has not lead to any significant voter fraud, increased costs, or created unmanageable burdens for election officials.

More importantly, voter participation in those states is between 5 percent and 15 percent higher than in other states in the nation.

One of the main reasons Election Day registration is important is that too often, especially in diverse, urban communities, registration forms fall through the cracks as they make their way from voter to Election Department.

This results in voters who think they are registered, but do not find out until they are at the polls that they are ineligible to cast a ballot. In a survey conducted at polling places throughout at Massachusetts in 2004, MassVOTE found that this was the case for 9 percent of voters that showed up at the polls.

Thus, Election Day registration would have increase the turnout in Massachusetts by 9 percent.

Even more telling is a May 2001 poll conducted by the Medill School of Journalism poll. They found that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of all non-voters said that allowing people to register and vote on Election Day would make them more likely to vote.

Registration in High School

We need to create a program to register all students before they leave high school and educate them on the voting process in their community. One way to do this is to allow 16 year olds to register and then allow them to vote when they turn 18.

Such a law already exists in Vermont and is being considered in Rhode Island.

High School registration will not only lead to cleaner and more complete voter rolls, but also has the potential to increase youth political participation.

Barely half of young adults are registered vote in the United States and youth turnout lags far beyond older Americans. Allowing students to register in high school will not only lead to cleaner and more complete voter rolls, but also has the potential to increase youth political participation.

A more radical step, but one I think is worth considering, is lowering the voting age to 16.

Currently the right to vote is granted at perhaps the worst possible moment in one's life. At 18 many youth leave the home and community they have lived for most their life, either to go away to college or to move away from home in search of work. At the moment they are supposed to vote they either have a new community that they are unfamiliar with or they must attempt to vote absentee back home, a process that turns off many new voters.

Lowering the voting age to 16 will give the vote to people who have roots in a community, have an appreciation for local issues, and will be more concerned about voting than those just two years older.

Allowing 16 years to vote will increase voter turnout among youth and help them become more active in politics. Studies have shown that if citizens begin voting earlier, and get into the habit of doing so earlier, they are more likely to stick with it through life.

Fairer Ballot Access Laws

In order to draw a large number of customers to a dealer's showroom, an automobile manufacturer offers a variety of models, an assortment of colors and an array of options.

It follows, then, that if governments want to attract more citizens to the polls on Election Day, it might help to appeal to a broader cross-section of the population by giving them more choices.

Vigorous third parties existed in the last century because the election laws did not discriminate against them. People were free to form new parties, and the government treated all parties, new and old, equally.

Over the past 80 years, however, the Democratic and Republican state legislatures have passed restrictive laws that make it exceedingly difficult for independent candidates and third parties to get on the ballot in many states.

Here in California, we have by far the highest signature requirement for independent candidates of any state in the US. That is why you never see independents running for Governor or even Assembly. This seems almost criminal given that almost 20 percent of the voters are not registered with any political party.

Itís time to give voters greater choice. Keeping independent candidates off the ballot is akin to disallowing voters - who have left the Democratic and Republican Parties - the right to representation.

When voters feel they are not able to vote for someone they agree with, they are less likely to show up at the polls. The similarity between the major two parties and the fact that most electoral districts are so gerrymandered that they are essential one party districts, does not inspire many citizens to bother to go out and vote.

Further Reform Needed

While the three reforms presented here could help boost turnout and increase civic involvement in government they do not address the greatest cause of voter apathy; our winner-take-all voting system.

Winner-take-all systems are a relic of a bygone day, as nearly every emerging democracy has rejected their use. They were introduced to America by the British during the colonial era, and are virtually unknown in other developed countries. Their failings lie at the root of many of our current political problems.

Because candidates can win with less than 50 percent of the of vote, winner-take-all elections often discourage citizens from voting for the candidate of their choice for fear that they will split the vote, and feel compelled to vote for the "lesser of two evils".

Lesser evil voting has allowed the two major political parties to retain their monopoly over our political system, suppressed voter turnout, and shut out new and independent voices in government.

In the long run, if we really want to increase voter turnout we must move to a proportional voting system that ensures all voters are represented in government. Only then will all citizens feel they have a stake in government and a reason to vote.

Dr. Forrest Hill is a candidate for California Secretary of State in the Nov. 7th election.

He is a research scientist, financial advisor, electoral reform activist and environmentalist. He has been a technical advisor for several government agencies including the California Department of Fish and Game and the Sonoma County Water Agency, and currently specializes in Socially Responsible Investing using investments for economic, social, and environmental transformation.