Americans don't vote for long list of reasons

Dave Helling // Published July 26, 2008 in The Kansas City Star

My vote doesn’t matter. I forgot to register. I can’t leave work. I don’t know where to go. I have kids at home. It’s confusing.

The list of reasons people don’t vote is long.

Why? Because the list of people who don’t vote is long.

Here, in the cradle of democracy, between 80 million and 90 million people — about 40 percent of U.S. citizens old enough to cast ballots — won’t vote this November. And with two wars, a precarious economy and the first major-party African-American candidate ever topping a ticket, this vote is considered the most important and compelling presidential election in a generation.

“It’s horrendous,” said Jacob Soboroff, executive director of the election reform group Why Tuesday? “If the United States is supposedly the world’s most famous democracy, why is our voter participation near the bottom of all countries?”

Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh said: “I think absolutely we should be worried about it. Low voter turnout is certainly a signal of a person’s confidence … in overall democracy.”

Since 1945, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, average voter turnout in the United States — about 48 percent — ranks 139th out of 172 countries.

“It is embarrassing,” said Democratic operative Steve Glorioso, who has visited dozens of nations to observe and critique election systems. “Around the world, in the democracies, they just scratch their heads when they look at Americans and see the turnout.”

“The machinery of American democracy is broken,” Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote last month in The Nation.

Not everyone agrees. Bent, maybe, but not broken.

Turnout in the 2004 presidential election, some point out, reached more than 60 percent of the eligible voting-age population — the highest in decades. And the fierce 2008 nominating battle energized voters, too.

“We saw a significant (turnout) spike in the primary season,” said Dan Seligson of “There were tremendous lines. There were paper ballot shortages.”

Said Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate: “We have deep polarization and deep fear and deep anger. Usually, that leads to high turnout.”

But other experts say voting in the U.S. is too difficult and confusing — based, they say, on 19th-century needs that are laughable in the 21st century.

“We haven’t had an upgrade to the American voting system since 1845,” Soboroff said.

“Defects in election administration and systems … can be remedied, and the promise of democracy restored,” the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law said, proposing an Agenda for Election Reform last year.

How? Several ideas are on the table. Here is a list, in descending order of likelihood:

Early voting

“Restricting voting to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November unduly restricts many voters,” said the office of Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat.

He has introduced legislation that, among other things, would allow voters nationwide to cast ballots in the weeks before Election Day, for any reason, as is done now in Kansas and several other states.

Missouri isn’t one of them.

“I have been in favor of early voting forever,” said Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. “It’s just logical and convenient for people.”

But early voting may not help increase turnout. Recent studies suggest it simply makes casting a ballot more convenient for those who would have voted anyway.

Mail-in ballots

Thornburgh said he has ordered a study of an all-mail voting system for statewide races in Kansas.

“I’m not ready to jump on that bandwagon, but it has piqued my interest,” he said.

Oregon conducts elections by mail. Other states, like Missouri, have experimented with some forms of mail-in voting, but haven’t done it statewide.

“I am not ready to go there yet,” said Carnahan, a Democrat. “I actually think Election Day is a good thing.”

And mail-in ballots are no guarantee of higher turnout.

“Where (mail-in) turnout used to be in the 50 percent range, then in the 40s, now we’re seeing it in the 30s,” said Brian Newby, Johnson County’s election director.

Less likely is Internet voting, which is still too insecure and not available to everyone.

Moving Election Day

“There’s hardly a democracy in the world that votes on a workday,” Glorioso said. “They mostly vote on Saturday or Sunday, or Election Day is a holiday.”

Soboroff said: “The vast majority of nonvoters say they’re too busy. … What other reason could there be for being too busy than voting in the middle of a workweek?”

Newby said: “We certainly think having a holiday to vote would be good. … You’d have polling places that are predictable.”

Gans said expanding hours at the nation’s 112,000 polling places would be a good idea, but moving Election Day would not.

“The evidence is that would hurt turnout,” he said. “Those localities which have tried Saturday voting have not had high turnout.”


Adam Fogel of FairVote, a reform group, said: “People who are registered to vote actually go out and vote. … There’s not an effort by the government to make sure the voter rolls are full and accurate.”

Carnahan said: “I think we need to be working hard at making registration more automatic and more portable.”

Several groups, most of them liberal, have called for Election Day voter registration. Others suggest universal pre-registration at an early age, or more aggressive motor-voter laws.

That might meet fierce resistance from Republicans and conservatives, who say making registration easier would invite voter fraud.

“You always try to find that balance between accessibility and security,” said Thornburgh, a Republican.

Gans said technology might provide a better solution:

“If we had a national mandatory biometric ID … that would eliminate fraud emanating from the registration and voting process.”

Central voting places

Some election officials say centralized voting sites, where ballots could be cast regardless of a voter’s address, could cut down on fraud, cost less and reduce the need for poll workers, who are in short supply.

“I have great hopes that we’ll be able to get new voters through that kind of polling location,” Thornburgh said.

But fewer polling sites would mean a longer commute for some voters, perhaps decreasing turnout, Carnahan said.

Fewer elections

“There are just too many elections,” Newby said. “I think people are electioned out.”

Consolidated elections would save time, money, and wear and tear on machinery — let alone focusing public attention on candidates and issues.

But ballots with lots of issues and candidates can be more confusing, experts say, and take longer to fill out — making voting more inconvenient and hurting turnout. And many cities and states can’t or won’t wait for months before putting issues to votes.

Exit polls

“It is bad journalism,” Gans said, to use exit polls to predict outcomes of races before all the polls close — predictions that some claim reduce turnout in places where polls are still open.

One suggestion: uniform poll opening and closing times in the U.S., or 24-hour voting.

That might be a hardship for voters and election workers.

Radical ideas

A parliamentary, multiparty system, or multiple-choice voting, would help voters believe their choices counted, some argue.

And the Electoral College gets quadrennial criticism for potentially reducing turnout in non-battleground states.

Those changes would require legislative and/or constitutional amendments and are not considered likely.

Motivated electors

Do everything — early voting, mail-in ballots, easy registration, all of it — and turnout might still be low.

“There is no silver bullet for reforming America’s broken voting system,” Soboroff said.

Convincing those nonvoters to cast ballots may depend on something else.

“The one thing that really drives voter turnout,” Thornburgh said, “is a great race.”

Voters have to care.

“I’m not sure that the system of election administration is the barrier to entry in the process. … Pain might be a minor contributing factor,” Seligson said. “But I think apathy would be a much larger one.”