Our society is founded on the idea that the government’s legitimacy stems from its representation of what the majority of the population wants. We express this through elections in which the population chooses the representatives whom they trust most to do this.
This is why voter participation is an important concept. Voter participation is the percentage of the population who actually votes, and as such is sometimes thought of an important indicator of democratic engagement in society.
Philosophical positions on voting
There are a couple of ways to think about this problem. Is voting a right, or a duty? If voting is a right, then people also have the corresponding right not to vote if they don’t want to. But if voting is a duty that we all owe as citizens – like signing up for the military draft, or following the law – then there is something unseemly about not voting.
This leads to a second, closely-related question. Do we want to encourage people to vote? If voting is a choice, and people aren’t voting because they don’t want to, don’t feel they understand the issues, or don’t support the system, do we want to force them to vote? You could argue against mandatory voting as a violation of free speech, or because making people vote who don’t want to will just cause them to cast protest votes or blank ballots. That does happen in some countries with mandatory voting.
The argument for increasing voter participation is that legitimacy derives from voting. When too many people don’t vote it makes us worry. We don’t know exactly why they don’t vote, but we are concerned that their absence may mean the needs of a large part of the population aren’t being met.
We know that a large majority of Americans consider voting the most important civic duty, even though most of them don’t vote. We also know that voting participation varies widely from country to country and from time to time. Some of it is cultural trends – participation tends to be higher after a war or similar national struggle, and higher with age, so older countries vote more. But there are definite systemic items that we could change if we wanted to and which we can see affect voting. Personally I wouldn’t support making voting mandatory, but I would support making voting easier. Let’s make sure the people who didn’t vote really didn’t want to.
What affects voter participation?
From a systemic point of view, having only two choices is a problem for voter participation. This is easy to understand – with only two choices, many simply won’t feel that either is good for them. I’ve written previous articles about ways to improve this situation through electoral college reform, party list voting, and ranked-choice voting. The rest of this article will discuss other factors.
Registration and Access
One question is, can people who want to vote successfully do so? This touches on several subpoints. These are the day and time of voting, the method of registration, and the place of voting.
Day and Time
The date of US elections is constitutionally fixed at the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in the US. The constitution was written before a modern economy existed, and a weekday after the harvest was in might have made sense. There was no pressing work, and it wasn’t a market day or a church day as the weekend might have been. But today it makes it hard for people who hold normal jobs. It’s hard to get away, and everyone who tries usually goes before work, at lunch, or after work, creating long lines. But if we changed to a Saturday, then most people wouldn’t have to work and people could more easily come and go all day, making it less crowded.
There are also absentee ballots or early voting. States which allow early voting, or which allow no-excuse absentee voting (absentee voting for any reason) see higher voter participation than those that don’t. The voters are using this to get around the problem of not being able to take time on a Tuesday.
The physical access also matters. Can everyone get to a voting place? Colorado’s vote-at-home program shows an easy and effective way to address this. Colorado mails the ballot to every voter a few weeks ahead of time, and citizens can send it as a mail-in vote, take it to an early voting center, or take it with them on election day. This addresses concerns that voters may not have time, be too sick or disabled, or simply live or work too far from a voting center, to vote on election day in person.
Ease of registration
People may want to vote, but be too disorganized, confused, or lazy to make sure that they are registered in the district they actually live in on election day. This generally arises with people who have never voted before, or who have moved since the last election, and forgotten that they will need to register to vote in the place they now live. The ease of doing so can vary widely. Some states allow same-day registration, others have more difficult processes. Same-day registration has been shown to increase participation.
Other or complementary options include ‘automatic registration’ policies or making registration available at any time online. Both have been shown to help. Automatic registration policies vary by state, but the basic idea is that any time a citizen interacts with the government (at the DMV, for example) they will be asked if the voter registration on file is accurate and allowed to update it. This helps register people who have moved and had not thought to update their registration.
Number of elections
The number of elections, and the number of candidates, also affects voter participation. The more elections there are, the less people vote, as people get tired of following the issues or simply don’t feel they understand all of the candidates. Americans, for example, vote officially at least every two years. This is a little on the frequent side, and in the US the effect is augmented by the number of votes we must cast. Most nations vote for legislative and executive positions, but don’t make the citizens vote for judges, prosecutors, treasurers, and so on all the way down to the town level. Another factor in American voter fatigue is the primary system, which asks many people to vote on who will be a candidate in the real elections in the first place. A reduction in the number of positions and changes to the party nomination process could help reduce confusion.
The rights of convicted felons to vote vary widely in the US. A couple of states let felons vote even while in prison, while many others take the right to vote away permanently. Most are somewhere in the middle, with felons losing voting rights until they are free and past probation.
I don’t think that someone should be able to vote while they are in prison – they have been removed from society for a crime, and they aren’t part of society again until that debt is paid. But after it is paid the person should be able to vote again. Part of ending the parole could be easily be re-registration of the voter.
The most controversial method is to have and enforce laws requiring voting. Some countries do this through quite substantial fines. The turnout is quite high in countries that enforce mandatory voting penalties. The biggest question here is where the country falls on the question of right vs duty at the beginning of the article. Some countries that have mandatory voting support it, others view it as a violation of rights and there are campaigns to end it. Some countries previously had it, but canceled it after public support dropped.
I don’t support forcing people who don’t want to vote, and there is some evidence there have been perverse effects from mandatory voting policies. Voters can cast deliberately invalid votes, vote at random, or cast protest votes, as the people who don’t vote by choice are more likely to hold extremist anti-establishment views against the current system. All of these actions undermine the legitimacy higher turnout is meant to bestow. The protest affect has been studied in the Netherlands – compulsory voting enhanced minority and fringe party votes while it was in effect, for example.
There are a few relatively minor practices the American states could adopt to help keep voter participation healthy. Same-day registration, vote-at-home systems, early voting and no-excuse absentee voting would all be relatively easy but effective methods. From a moral point of view, I would also support changing laws to allow ex-felons to votes once they have rejoined society.
Doing that would be big step. Definitely we should start there, and if that’s all we did it would still be a good thing. I think until we have solved those relatively minor problems we shouldn’t tackle the more politically difficult ones. Those would be a constitutional amendment to change the voting day, and a reduction in the number of less meaningful elected positions and primaries.