One Big Reason The U.S. Has Embarrassingly Low Voter Turnout

June 4th 2015

Dante Atkins

Editor's update: Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton just delivered a major speech on voting rights at Texas Southern University in Houston during which she called for automatic universal voter registration for all U.S citizens when they turn 18. "I think this would have a profound impact on our elections and our democracy," she said, according to BuzzFeed News. During the same speech, Secretary Clinton also called for an expansion of early voting as well as increased access to online voter registration. ATTN: recently made a video explaining why America pales in comparison to many other industrialized democracies in voter turnout. Our cumbersome two-step voter registration process has a lot do with it.  

Compared to other wealthy developed nations, voter turnout in the United States is remarkably low. In 2008, for instance, the energy and enthusiasm surrounding the presidential campaign of Barack Obama led to potentially the highest voter turnout in the United States in at least 40 years, with 64% of the voting-eligible population casting ballots. But that still doesn’t stack up well with the rest of the first world: according to the Center for Voting and Democracy, the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have average election turnout around 70%. Some nations have compulsory voting: in these countries, turnout averages around 90%.

So what can we do to increase participation in elections?

Delving deeper into the turnout numbers in 2008 provides a good clue. According to the US Census Bureau, there were 146 million people registered to vote in time for the 2008 election, and of those, 131 million cast a ballot. That’s nearly 90%--a healthy number for a participatory democracy. The problem? Only 71% of eligible citizens were registered to vote. That means that nearly 1 in 3 American citizens would have been unable to walk into a polling place on Election Day in 2008 and cast a ballot. Getting that slice of the electorate registered to vote in the first place would likely provide a substantial boost to turnout and make it especially easier for young voters to participate in democracy. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to do just that.

The Canadian model

In the United States, registering to vote is an opt-in process: getting on the rolls requires filling out a voter registration form and delivering it to the appropriate elections official. Many people either don’t realize they have to do this to begin with, or forget to re-register when they move and consequently lose their voting eligibility. Most modern democracies don’t do things this way: in Canada, for instance, the federal government compiles data from various agencies to automatically add eligible citizens to the voter rolls and update their information, and then transfers that data to provincial governments. It’s not compulsory: Canadians have the right to opt out if they so choose. But because of this automatic information sharing, our neighbors to the north don’t have to worry about proactively registering to vote in order to cast a ballot.

Why can’t we do this in the United States?

Some states are trying to make the shift from an opt-in to an opt-out model. Oregon, for instance, is expected to pass an automatic voter registration bill that will use DMV records to automatically add eligible voters to the rolls and update their information if they file a change of address with the agency—unless, of course, the voter opts out. The proposed law will especially help increase ballot access among young voters: teenagers who acquire driver licenses but are too young to be eligible to vote will be pre-registered and automatically added to the voter rolls when their reach age of majority. Combine this with Oregon’s vote-by-mail system where every registered voter automatically receives a ballot in the mail, and it’s easy to see how this system can increase ballot access among young voters.
The problem, of course, is politics. While helping eligible voters cast ballots might seem to transcend partisan lines, the demographics most likely to be helped by automatic registration are young and minority voters. Because these groups tend to vote Democratic, conservative politicians have been working overtime to restrict their access to the ballot box by cutting the early voting hours when minorities are more likely to vote, and by passing voter ID laws that have the effect of inhibiting student turnout. The only places where this type of innovation stands a chance at passage, then, are states with solid Democratic majorities in the legislature. Oregon seems like the logical choice to make this first step: the state has a history of progressive reforms in voting procedures—it was the first state to conduct elections exclusively by postal voting. It also has the highest turnout in the nation. If universal voter registration can increase turnout there, it will be strong evidence to support the system’s effectiveness elsewhere.

Are there risks?

Possibly. Opponents of the bill argue that the information-sharing requirement by the DMV could endanger voter privacy, especially among teenagers. But it’s hard to see why requiring citizens to give their information to the DMV and then give their information to the registrar of voters is riskier than the DMV simply sharing the information with the registrar automatically. In addition, the legislation currently proposed in Oregon safeguards the information of minors more stringently than current law.

The United States should follow the lead of other advanced democracies in making voter registration automatic and universal. Oregon has the chance to prove it works.

If you are not registered to vote, you can do so at www.ourtime.org