Political discussion this year is as heated as ever. How involved should government be in our everyday lives? What is the best way to approach our national debt? Should the federal government keep funding Big Bird? However, despite the divisive nature of the upcoming election, both parties agree on one issue -- that we need to increase our voter turnout.
Last year, I voted for the first time. I'll admit that voting for town officials and local judges wasn't the most exciting activity, but I was nevertheless proud to be actively participating in democracy. I see voting as not only my duty as an American, but also one of the most fundamental ways in which I can voice my opinion.
Sadly, many Americans do not feel as I do. Voter turnout in past years has been abysmal. According to the American Presidency Project from the University of California, Santa Barbara, national turnout of eligible voters in presidential election years has not surpassed 70 percent since 1900. That number has stayed below 60 percent since 1968, and even dipped below 50 percent in 1996. Keep in mind that these statistics are only from presidential election years; turnout during other years is significantly lower. To put these statistics in perspective, realize that the United States ranks 138th in worldwide voter participation.
But before I start telling you how we can increase voter turnout, we need to ask ourselves why high turnout is so significant. The answer is simple: legitimacy. An election with high voter turnout underscores the strength of democracy and demonstrates that the elected government is in power because of the will of its people. Likewise, low voter turnout draws a government's legitimacy into question. It's no surprise that Saddam Hussein claimed that there was 100 percent participation in his 2002 referendum election.
Next, we need to analyze why half the eligible population is choosing not to vote. With difficulty registering to vote aside, this could be due to any combination of factors. After all, it's possible for a car to break down on the way to polls, to forget when Election Day is, or to could come down with food poisoning after eating at that not-quite-sanitary restaurant. However, while these random occurrences might prevent someone from casting his or her vote, they aren't the main reasons behind our nation's low voter turnout. According to a 2011 Psychology Today article, the top reasons for not voting are a reported illness or disability (15 percent) and being too busy or having conflicting schedules (17 percent). Thousands of Americans are unable to vote for the simple reason that they cannot make it to the polls.
While it is clear that something has to be done, only two states have already gone ahead and taken action. In 1998, Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved requiring election officials to mail ballots to all registered voters, who could then mail them back or drop them off in person. Washington State has recently followed suit. The results? Consistently high voter turnout. In fact, in the 2010 midterm elections, just two states exceeded 70 percent participation. Which states? You guessed it! Oregon and Washington. Key states that didn't break 50 percent participation in that election include New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
This is a system that could and should be effectively implemented throughout the country. People should no longer have to worry about rushing to the polls before they close. People should no longer be unable to vote because of a sudden illness, accident, or family emergency. Not only will there be less stress around voting, but as I explained above, turnout would increase dramatically. According to former Oregon Secretary of State and Chief Elections Official Phil Keisling, "If all 50 states used this system, at least 20 million additional votes could be cast in most national elections."
Additionally, while many would argue that mail-in voting would make the voting process much more susceptible to fraud, Keisling explains that he's had overwhelmingly positive experiences. "After tens of millions of ballots cast," he says, "the actual incidents in Oregon -- and then, only of individual voter fraud -- can be counted on two hands."
Ultimately, I come to the conclusion that having ballots automatically sent to voters before Election Day is a step in the right direction. Is it the perfect solution? Absolutely not. In fact, I feel that online voting offers even greater promise. The way I see it, so many of our daily interactions occur online, that it only makes sense that we add voting to the mix. Just imagine being able to log on, select your desired candidates, and continue with your day. Of course, security measures would have to be fail proof, with multistep log-in systems and constant governmental monitoring, but it is a definite possibility. After all, complex and sensitive functions such as air traffic control and million dollar transactions take place on the Internet on a daily basis without incident.
Other countries have already addressed their voter turnout problems by turning to the Internet. In Canada and Estonia, voter turnout skyrocketed with the addition of online voting. In all, 80 Canadian cities and towns have experimented with Internet voting in municipal elections. An independent report by the digital-strategy firm Delvinia showed that early voting increased 300 percent the first year online voting was allowed in Canadian cities. And soon, like Estonia, which has online voting available for all voters, Canada may be transitioning to nationwide online voting.
Clearly something needs to be done to address our voting problem. Whether the solution is mail-in voting, online voting, or even moving Election Day to be on a weekend, I have no doubt that 200 years from now Americans are going to look back and laugh at the fact that we still go to polling places on a Tuesday in early November in order to vote. Yes, we may lose the traditional pulling of the lever to cast our votes, but we will gain a much more vibrant democracy and a stronger nation as a result.
Yesterday, I mailed in my absentee ballot (which was sent to me only after I issued a formal request), but hopefully tomorrow I, along with countless other Americans who would never have voted otherwise, will be able to vote from home with the mark of a pen or the click of a button.