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Enable Voting, Don't Disable Voting

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Comparisons of the United States to other major democratic countries show clearly that Americans are far less likely to vote than citizens in other countries. This is problematic, since one major symptom of a poorly functioning democracy is when a large percentage of citizens chooses to not vote.

So what are the factors influencing voting turnout that may be causing Americans to be less likely to vote? There are many. For example: demographics (older citizens are more likely to vote), convenience of voting, absence of trust in government, the degree of partisanship among the population, lack of general interest in politics and a failure of faith in the true effect of voting. In this blog, I am focusing on convenience of voting.

Many Americans are unaware of the fact that their system of voting is far less convenient than that found in other major democracies. In the United States, in all but one state, voters must go through a separate registration process before voting, and the vast majority of states do not allow Election Day registration. This two-step process -- register, then vote -- is more complicated than the process in many other countries and discourages some Americans from voting. In Austria, Germany, France and Belgium, voter lists are generated from larger population databases or by other government agencies, thus simplifying the voting process. For example, Germans who are eighteen or older on voting day automatically receive a notification card before any election in which they are eligible to vote. In Canada, the income tax returns are used for voter registration. In the United Kingdom, every residence receives a notice of those registered within the household, and additional voters can be registered by mail.

These countries are enabling the voting process. They are leveraging readily accessible, government-tracked information to make it easier for citizens to vote. It is not surprising to know that those countries all have far higher voter turnout rates than the United States. While these countries are busy simplifying the process of voting, it is rather conspicuous that many American states are even more busy developing new hurdles for voters, adding requirements such as government issued photo identification to their state's (already more complicated) two-step process.

Defenders of these added barriers to voting insist that these measures are designed to head off voter fraud and ensure the integrity of the voting process. Critics point out that voter fraud is generally very low, that these barriers are a modern "poll tax" that will disproportionately impact the poor and minorities, and that systematic, electronic fraud, like the cleaning of the voter rolls in Florida's 2000 election, is a far greater risk than individual identity fraud. Those critics cite Pennsylvania's House of Representatives legislative leader Mike Turzai's quote that "voter ID . . . is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania" as evidence that the added requirements are specifically meant to disenfranchise voters who are more likely to be Democratic.

While our political parties are battling back and forth about how to raise or to not raise the barriers to voting, few people are talking about how the government can facilitate the voting process. We can learn from other countries how to leverage government-run databases to create voter lists and simplify the process of voting to one-step. We can learn how to have a population that is more engaged in its government. We can learn from other countries how to enable, rather than disable voting.

This article is based on excerpts from the recently released book The Measure of a Nation: How to Regain America's Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing

A key goal in 'Measure of a Nation' is to compare the United States to other wealthy countries, with the idea being to identify which countries are performing the best in each area of interest: health, safety, democracy, education and equality. In each of those areas, the countries that are performing the best are examined to determine which best practices might be applied here in America.

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