By Geri Mannion
Sitting in a Starbucks on Route 1 in Woodbridge, New Jersey, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I wondered why I didn't vote by mail -- a recent innovation in New Jersey that allows citizens to vote absentee without an excuse. Without power, cable or Internet access, how would I and millions of voters in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and other affected states actually vote on Tuesday? This just reinforced my conviction that voting needs to become more accessible and more convenient, a major goal of Carnegie Corporation's U.S. Democracy Program and our grantees and partners around the country.
Given the lack of civic education and the fact we have some of the lowest voter turnout rates of any industrialized nation, it's difficult to understand why states erect more and more barriers instead of embracing some of the best practices out there to enlarge the electorate. We must ask ourselves the hard questions that lead to change... starting with, why don't election officials work to expand opportunities for citizens to vote?
Important innovations include same day registration: average voter turnout in states with this option, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, has been up to 12 percentage points higher
than in states without same day registration. Why aren't states expanding advance voting, which allows voters to cast a vote two or more weeks in advance of Election Day? Why not encourage more vote by mail? And why not provide better civic education and register high school seniors to vote while they are in school? We mandate that young men register for the military draft; why not also mandate that all schools register young people to vote? This would make them ready to vote once they turn 18.
Why does Election Day have to be on a Tuesday? Why not allow voting the full weekend before an election? All of these simple remedies would allow citizens -- folks who often are working two or more jobs, attending school, running their children around to activities, and more -- to be able to vote according to their schedules rather than on arbitrary days decided by local bureaucrats. And, as those of us affected by Hurricane Sandy have realized, Mother Nature can wreak havoc on one's best-laid plans to vote in person on a given day.
There are lots of tried-and-true ways that would encourage higher voter turnout, and this should be done not just for federal elections, but all elections. School board and judicial elections, for example, are just as important as the presidential and congressional elections, but little if no attention is paid to these.
Politicians from both parties rarely work to enlarge the electorate. If they did, the National Voter Registration Act (commonly known as "motor voter") would be fully enforced in all state and federal agencies; there would be publicly financed elections; the Electoral College would not skew the interests of the presidential candidates; voting machines and elections in general would be better regulated; and civic education in the schools would be mandated. These are just a few strategies, tested in many places, which have been known to engage all voters in the process. But rarely is electoral reform on the top of any politician's agenda; rather, it's often left to a scrappy group of nonprofits to work on engaging the electorate and ensuring people's votes get counted.
Take nonpartisan voter registration, for example. Rather than re-registering voters every four years, there is a better way: universal voter registration, putting the responsibility on the government for registering all eligible voters, would be a start. With that barrier removed, it would then be up to candidates and the political parties to engage in persuasion -- to debate ideas and policies. In countries like Australia
, which has compulsory voting and even fines people a nominal fee for not voting, voter turnout is more than 90 percent. In the United States, voters must re-register every time they move, change names, etc. Why is it my creditors find me when I move, but my voter registration doesn't?
So, if I could wave my magic wand, here are three recommendations to improve our democracy and increase civic engagement:
- Full implementation of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) by every social agency in the federal and state governments. This would offer voter registration to citizens who are already in government databases, such as those of Social Security, disability or veterans' agencies. After 10 years, voters have seen the ease with which they can register at motor vehicle agencies; let's now expand it to all public offices that touch our lives, including schools. And, at the same time, the federal government should consider universal voter registration strategies. We require all newborns to get a Social Security number, so why not register them as voters and citizens, too?
- Full public financing for election campaigns for all federal offices. It would actually be cheaper for all citizens in the long run. Who is not tired of all the political ads that seem to not educate voters but divide voters? Plus, public financing would open up running for office to people from all walks of life -- not just the very rich or connected. And for those candidates who want to use their own money, they can opt out, as long as there is a way to level the playing field for those running against them. It is likely that large numbers of candidates for public office, if they are honest, would be for this; most hate "dialing for dollars." It would also combat the cynicism of voters about how candidates get funded, which fuels their anti-politician/anti-government feelings and encourages many to disengage from civic life.
- Consider the impact of the Electoral College. Why is it that a few undecided voters in a fewer number of states get all the attention in presidential elections? If you live in a deeply red (Texas) or deeply blue (New York) state, you would barely know an election is happening. No candidates rallying, few political ads, no rock stars showing up. There have been some proposed reforms to the Electoral College, such as proportioning electoral votes according to each state's popular vote, but since changing the Electoral College would take a constitutional amendment, such ideas fall flat. But why not consider strategies that would encourage candidates to engage all American citizens, not just those who live in Florida, Ohio or Wisconsin!
There are many more ideas that would improve our electoral system, but there doesn't seem to be much public will to carry out reform and improve how elections are administered in the United States. Until there's more willingness by public officials at all levels of government to consider and implement a major voters' reform agenda, here's my most radical proposal: if we are going to allow Citizens United to be the law of the land and allow corporations to register and educate voters, without any nonpartisan restrictions, the Internal Revenue Service should review and reassess the rules about how nonprofits are allowed to engage in elections. Why not allow all nonprofits to participate as actively as corporations in engaging their constituencies?
I am a motivated voter, so today, I am going to get in my car, which thankfully has gas, and drive 11.5 miles to my County Clerk's office in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where I hope I can cast my vote in person. I don't want to take a chance that there will be problems at my polling place on Tuesday. Many of my neighbors in New Jersey and the tri-state area will not have the same luxury. Voting shouldn't be so hard.
Geri Mannion, Director of the U.S. Democracy Program at Carnegie Corporation of New York, has spent 25 years funding, studying, and thinking about nonpartisan civic engagement. On the eve of the 2012 elections, she was asked by Alliance for Justice to reflect on how to strengthen the United States' system of elections and increase voter engagement.
Learn about how nonpartisan civic engagement work has changed over the years in Alliance for Justice's Bolder Advocacy Q&A with Geri Mannion. For voter resources from Carnegie Corporation partners, follow #EducateTheVote.