Voter Turnout: Balancing Higher Numbers with a More Informed Electorate

March 24, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

President Obama’s comments last week regarding mandatory voting has spurred considerable debate regarding the merits of such a proposal.  According to the president, mandatory voting could be a way to counteract money in politics in the short term.  While this solution is highly suspicious, it generates a larger concern regarding how to gain wider voter participation under the right terms.

Increased overall participation can create problems and should not be the main focus when examining voter turnout.  While voter participation is important, what’s even more valuable is a more informed electorate.  Some have regarded the president’s mandatory proposal as counter intuitive to his goal because first, those who typically avoid the polls are less informed and second, if the president wants to combat higher spending in elections, seen as an increasing hindrance on democracy, mandatory voting could serve the opposite purpose as a less informed electorate would be more likely to be swayed by an increase in television ads spurred by increased campaign spending – not to mention the invasion of liberty such a proposal would inflict.

With these concepts in mind, what can be done to increase voter turnout concurrently with more informed voters?  Make voting easier.  Many advocates have rallied for either a national holiday or Saturday voting.  By making Election Day either a national holiday or a Saturday when most people are typically not working, they would be more likely to turn out at the polls.  In districts where voting lines can run around the block, individuals cannot risk the time from work to cast their vote.  Similarly, for parents who have to shuttle their children to day care or school after getting them up then commuting to work after a full morning, the addition of another stop to exercise their right to vote becomes an inconvenience.  Voting should be regarded as a civic duty, not an inconvenience.

Separately, an experimental new initiative in Hyattsville, MD could be molding a new generation of interested and informed voters.  In January, the city council voted to lower the voting age to 16 in municipal elections.  Estimates indicate that this measure will add between 200 and 250 teenagers to the electorate.  One Hyattsville teenager pushed back on claims that teenagers do not have enough life experience to be able to vote, a main argument against the measure.  “I have a job, and I pay taxes and I’m learning how to drive on the city roads, so, I feel like that’s enough life experience to be able to vote in a city election,” said Sarah Leonard, 15, who appeared on MSNBC.  Leonard stated that a government class in high school piqued her interest in how local government works and she believes that if teenagers are able to vote in local city elections, they will also become more interested in the issues that face their society.

Last week, Oregon announced a bold new law in the same vein as President Obama’s proposal.  Anyone who has a driver’s license will be automatically registered to vote and will be mailed a ballot before Election Day.  This proposal runs in contrast to the president’s in that it does not interfere with personal liberties regarding voting coercion, but it could violate personal liberties for those who wish to completely abstain from the election process all together.  Additionally, Oregon’s new law shifts the onus of voter registration on the state rather than the individual, according to the director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Myrna Pérez.

Increasing a more informed electorate is highly important but the proper safeguards must be ensured.  Some have floated online voting or voting through email, though, these proposals have been met with some criticism as they are more susceptible to fraud.  While claims of legitimate voter fraud are still hotly debated, ensuring secure election results is just as important as increasing the number of citizens who turnout.

Many voting advocates are ashamed at the low numbers of voter turnout in the United States.  Numbers for presidential election years, which are usually higher than the dismal turnout numbers for midterm elections, hover just north of half the electorate.  Politics and government today can be extremely confusing and campaign ads that smear opponents’ positions just muddy the water.  It can be difficult to know which candidate is genuine and which proposal is actually legitimately good policy. 

Further compounding the issue is the notion that one’s vote does not count, which, sad to say, in some states holds some truth.  With the presidential election, the candidate with the most overall votes, the popular vote, does not always win.  They must gain 270 electoral votes as established by the Electoral College instituted at the founding of the nation.  Many Republican candidates do not even bother campaigning in states such as Massachusetts, a state that is typically a lock for Democrats, because it doesn’t have many electoral votes, and more importantly, they know they won’t win.  For a conservative electorate in the state, or even liberals who know the Democratic candidate will win their state, there is little incentive to vote for the president, which is generally why presidential electoral turnout is greater than midterm elections.  Yes, there are myriad other state and local elections along with the presidential, but the notion that the candidate with the most votes or that one’s vote might not count could contribute to dissuaded turnout.

Voting is held as one of the highest civic honors in a democratic society.  While it should be important to empower as many Americans as possible to exercise this right, it is equally important to balance liberty concerns and not coerce citizens.  Americans have the prerogative to exercise their right or not.  Furthermore, as Russell Berman questioned in a recent piece, “How far should the government go to encourage citizens to register and vote?”  With widespread accusations of voter disenfranchisement and new proposals for automatic voter registration, the government should bear in mind that it is their job to empower citizens and persuade voters to vote for them, not force citizens to vote just for the sake of voting.