Why Do We Make It So Hard for Americans to Vote?

Even in this intense presidential election season, voter turnout has been abysmal. There's a better way to get voters to participate.
April 6, 2016
By Phil Keisling  |  Contributor
Director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University's Hatfield School of Government

More than 63 percent. That's the portion of active registered voters -- those who were eligible to participate in one of the 34 state primary elections or party caucuses conducted through March 26 -- who didn't vote or caucus for a presidential candidate.

This 37 percent turnout rate would look even worse using official, published figures; many states' voter registration rolls are rife with so-called "inactive" voters. Use an even broader denominator -- all eligible citizens, registered or not -- and the no-show rate is over 70 percent.

This needn't be. Abysmal voter-participation rates have many causes, but one of the most important ones is that we simply make it too hard for Americans to vote. Three states have adopted a simple and cost-effective solution. If adopted broadly, universal voting by mail would go a long way toward bringing far more citizens into the critical process of selecting our political leaders.

There's certainly vast room for improvement. In 21 primary elections to date, active registered voter turnout has averaged just 41 percent. Only two states have cracked the 50 percent mark: Ohio (51 percent) and New Hampshire (60 percent). Caucus states' turnout rates have been far lower: overall, just 13 percent of the active registered voters allowed by various parties' rules to participate. Iowa's iconic caucuses attracted fewer than one in five registered voters, even though non-affiliated voters were allowed to participate.

Most news coverage has reflected a far different narrative of "record high" turnout with "droves" and "long lines" of voters, especially new, young, and/or angry ones who favor the parties' insurgent candidates, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Some lines have indeed been inexcusably long. It's true that compared to the 2008 primary election cycle -- not to mention 2012, when only the Republican nomination was in play -- there's been an uptick in many states' numbers. And yes, there are certainly a lot of angry voters, driven by such issues as immigration, trade agreements, economic inequality or Wall Street banks. But less than a third of eligible Americans weighing in on these and other issues hardly a tidal wave makes.

Have voters been too busy to notice there's a presidential race going on? Not likely, given the endless, wall-to-wall press coverage of every angry rally and testy debate exchange. Maybe the weather has been bad? So far this year, the weather gods have actually been gracious. A February blizzard in Iowa hit the day after its caucuses. Most of New Hampshire got blanketed with snow the day before its primary, but Primary Day itself dawned to sunny skies and mostly plowed roads. Are photo ID laws taking a toll on turnout? As odious and unnecessary as these restrictions are, so far they seem to be a non-issue.

You can't really blame voter-registration or polling-place hassles. Most states now allow online voter registration. In the last decade, many states also have loosened absentee-ballot rules and instituted "early in-person voting" at special polling sites open for several weeks (including weekend days) prior to Election Day.

But processing millions of additional absentee-ballot requests, setting up extra polling places and hiring more poll workers costs real money, and elections are still largely the financial responsibility of cash-strapped local governments. A Dayton Daily News analysis of state records in 2012 concluded that various early-voting strategies had caused these costs for Ohio counties to nearly double between presidential election cycles, from $67 million to $122 million.

If such changes consistently led to higher turnout, they'd arguably be worth the extra cost. But among the 10 states in the 2014 midterm elections with the highest rates of early in-person voting, the collective turnout rate of active registered voters was actually slightly lower than the national average.

Most important, such efforts ultimately are just "add-on" strategies to a long-standing ballot-delivery model by which voters are required to either physically go to where their ballots are issued, be it on Election Day or before, or apply and qualify for an absentee ballot.

How much more evidence of poor -- or even dismal -- voter turnout in critically important elections is needed before we recognize that the traditional polling place a far more potent "voter suppression" mechanism than photo ID laws?

During the 2014 midterms, active-registered-voter turnout was just 48 percent nationally, and only 56 percent among 16 key battleground states with close U.S. Senate and/or governor contests. The top two states in getting active registered voters to cast ballots were Colorado (72 percent) and Oregon (71 percent) -- and the latter wasn't even a battleground.

Oregon's May 2008 presidential primary was the most recent occasion when that state's voters had contested races for both Democratic and Republican candidates (though the GOP's nominee was largely decided by then). Republican active-registered-voter turnout was 56 percent; Democratic turnout was 76 percent.

What do Oregon and Colorado (and, since 2011, Washington state) do differently? For every election, these states simply mail every registered voter a ballot. Voters can then drop the completed ballot into the mail or use any one of hundreds of convenient drop stations.

What isn't part of these systems? Voting lines, for starters. Absent, too, are software-based voting machines that, as they wear out or become obsolete, will cost their jurisdictions billions of dollars to replace. Photo IDs aren't an issue, nor is voter impersonation or other electoral mischief. Each returned ballot is verified by checking the voter's signature against his or her registration record.

Oregon's local governments save about $3 million each election cycle. The cost of mailing out more than 2 million ballots statewide is more than offset by the savings from eliminating thousands of polling places and their Election Day workers. A just-released Pew Charitable Trusts study pegged Colorado's 2014 election savings at $6 per vote -- roughly $12 million compared to its 2008 experience.

The bottom line is this: Had every American state matched Oregon's and Colorado's 2014 turnout, 30 million more ballots would have been cast. And imagine the extra ballots -- not to mention their impact -- in the current presidential races.

Some candidates and their partisans may actually prefer far lower turnout. Others simply don't want to let go of those Norman Rockwell-like visuals of intrepid voters traipsing through snowy streets to do their civic duty. But American history will be made whether it's with a few of us voting or a lot of us. Isn't it long past time to stop confusing a particular, long-standing ritual of democracy with its essence: participation?