Opportunities with New Methods of Voting

Overcoming Structural Barriers to Participation        

Burck Smith

        While voter turnout rose 6% in the 1992 presidential election, it is fair to say that we are living in troubled democratic times. Despite the increase, only 56% of the eligible population voted in the presidential election. This figure regularly drops into the twenties and teens for non-presidential, state, local and primary elections. Furthermore, political cynicism is rampant among today's electorate, further alienating the public from democratic process.
        The promotion of citizen participation in elections depends on at least three factors: 1) the existence or lack of structural barriers to registration and voting; 2) the quality and quantity of political information and citizen deliberation; and 3) the competitiveness of elections and the caliber of the candidates. Here I will address the existence of structural barriers to citizen participation in politics.

Enforce the National Voter Registration Act

        The May 1993 passage of the National Voter Registration Act significantly reduced structural barriers to voter registration. Although, the innovations addressed by this hearing relate to voting, rather than registration, the single most important thing that Congress can do now is to enforce state compliance with the National Voter Registration Act. The Center for Policy Alternatives released a report in August 1994 identifying approximately a dozen states who have done nothing toward implementation. Once implementation is accomplished, the issues addressed by today's hearing will represent the next set of election administration reforms.
        Telephone voting, electronic balloting, early voting, absentee voting and mail balloting are the cutting edge programs in election administration. These programs benefit anyone who encounters difficulty voting at a conventional polling place. Examples of beneficiaries include the elderly, people with disabilities, those who work odd hours, those who are out of town on election day and the average, harried voter. These programs should be actively supported to the extent that the costs are reasonable and the integrity of an election would not be compromised. These programs mentioned today fall into two categories -- current and future innovations.

Current Innovations

        Like components of the National Voter Registration Act, early voting, innovations in absentee voting and mail balloting are all programs that have been successfully tested at the state level. Texas has had an extensive early voting program for seven years, and Colorado and Oklahoma both allow early voting to a lesser extent. At least ten states allow voters to vote absentee without specifying a reason, and Washington state allows voters to automatically receive an absentee ballot for every election.
        Fifteen states already employ mail balloting in selected elections, and Oregon has even held a statewide all-mail election. [In July 1995, the Oregon governor John Kitzhaber vetoed legislation that would have replaced all polling places with mail ballots, arguing that the measure deserved more study - editors.] . Some states are also allowing early votes to be cast in "satellite" offices. Texas established early voting polling places in Wal-Marts and at shopping malls, and Dade County, Florida has satellite locations for absentee voting.
        These reforms have been proven to be enormously popular with the public, and, in the case of mail balloting, often less expensive than traditional elections. In 1985 surveys that accompanied two mail ballot elections in Washington and Montana it was found that more than nine of ten respondents preferred using mail ballots.

Future Innovations

        Picture this: a low-income single mother rarely leaves the house after work because of the fear of leaving her children at home alone. However, despite this woman's isolation she can discuss access to child-care facilities in an on-line discussion group, read about current state and federal legislation at another internet address, e-mail her federal and state legislators and vote from the home or work. By providing accessible political opportunities, these kinds of technologies have the potential to reinvigorate citizen participation in politics.
        Telephone voting and electronic balloting are innovations that are hungered for by the public. A survey published in the October 1994 issue of Macworld, a respected computer magazine for Macintosh users, revealed that 67% of consumers indicated a strong or moderate level of interest in electronic voting. Furthermore 20% of respondents indicated that they would pay up to $10 for the provision of such a service.
        Although the public's interest has been piqued, the practicality of such a system is, as yet, undetermined. Its viability will be determined by the process through which it can guarantee a citizens' constitutional right to a secret ballot, its ability to maintain the integrity of an election, its cost, its accessibility and the capabilities of the information infrastructure.
        Telephone voting demonstrations in New Mexico successfully proved that a secret ballot and electoral integrity can be maintained when voting remotely. On the other hand, cost to boards of elections, accessibility to the public and capabilities of the information infrastructure remain important obstacles to electronic elections. But they could be surmounted as the cost of the necessary computer hardware and software continues to fall, modem and computer use becomes more widespread in American homes, public institutions like libraries and schools provide more access to the information superhighway and construction of advanced telephone and cable television continues to advance.
        Given that the hardware, software and infrastructure will soon be available to accommodate electronic elections, Ed Weems, President of Election Technology Corporation and Center for Policy Alternative Governance advisory board member, estimates that the technological components of electronic voting will be available in three years. He also cautions that it may take fifteen years to implement because of political resistance.
        Despite the need for electoral innovation, a cautionary note must be sounded. What if the isolated mother mentioned earlier lives in a neighborhood where the information infrastructure will not support the transmission of the desired political information?
        While the potential of communications technologies is extraordinary, there are dangers. Congress must take particular care to use technology to connect rather than to isolate. In addition, non-traditional voting programs, like electronic voting and absentee voting, need to be thoroughly explained and publicized so that all people will have access to these opportunities. This is particularly relevant to any innovation that relies on technology to improve access.
        We need to be aware of the democratic potential and pitfalls that await us in the information age. But because of the dire need to increase public participation in the electoral system, any innovation that makes voting more convenient and is responsive to the public should be fully explored.

        Burck Smith delivered this testimony to the House Subcommittee on Elections in September 1994 in his capacity as Governance Program Coordinator of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a non-profit, non-partisan voice for progressive policies in all fifty states. For information on the Center, contact: 1875 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 710, Washington, DC 20009 (202) 387-6030.

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Chapter Six