2018 U.S. Midterm Elections

Why Is It So Hard to Vote in America?

Voter turnout lags in the world’s most powerful democracy.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders supporters rally in Los Angeles on May 19, 2016, to bring attention to voter suppression in Nevada. (Frederic Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders supporters rally in Los Angeles on May 19, 2016, to bring attention to voter suppression in Nevada. (Frederic Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Americans like to think of their political system as the gold standard of democratic governance.

But a complicated registration process, the failure to make Election Day a national holiday, and political measures aimed at suppressing turnout—especially among African-Americans and other minorities—have combined to give the United States one of the lower voter participation rates in the developed world.

In the 2016 presidential election, only 56 percent of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots, a slight increase over 2012. In contrast, 87 percent of voting-age Belgians, 83 percent of Swedes, and 80 percent of Danes voted in their most recent national elections, according to a May study by the Pew Research Center.

“We would not put up with our election system if it were delivering us a consumer product,” said Justin Levitt, an expert on elections at the Loyola Law School. “That product would go out of business tomorrow.”

Here’s a quick survey of the problems and how to solve them.


The Registration Barrier

Sweden and Germany automatically register eligible citizens onto their voting rolls. The United Kingdom and Australia actively promote voter registration. But in the United States, signing up to vote is a cumbersome process and might represent the biggest hurdle to voter participation. In parts of America, it’s getting worse.

Since 2010, 22 states have passed laws requiring photo IDs or curtailing early voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit public policy institute at New York University Law School that promotes democracy and justice. (Some of the most controversial laws have been challenged in lawsuits or struck down by courts.)

In Georgia, a Republican legislature has approved several complicated voting requirements and purged more than 600,000 voters—nearly 10 percent of registered voters—for failing to participate in elections for more than three years. More than 130,000 of those voters had registered to vote for the first time in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president.

Georgia’s so-called exact match law, enacted in 2017, requires that information on a registration application precisely match the information on government Social Security or driver’s license databases. An examination by the Associated Press found that some 53,000 people—70 percent of them African-Americans—had their applications held up. The law also proved burdensome for newly naturalized citizens, whose new status is not always reflected in relevant governments databases.

“There is no inherent problem with requiring some sort of ID,” said Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project. “The issue is when strict ID laws are rolled out while substantial segments of the population don’t have that ID or don’t have access.”

The upshot of all these measures is reflected in the numbers: Only about 64 percent of Americans who were eligible to vote were registered in 2016, according to the Census Bureau. By comparison, Canada and the United Kingdom in recent years registered 91 percent of their voting-age population, while Slovakia registered 99 percent.


The Scheduling Problem

To cast their ballots, many Americans have to rush to their polling stations before work or face long lines at the end of the day. That’s because voting in the United States is done in the middle of the week, and efforts to declare Election Day a national holiday have consistently faced congressional hurdles. Americans have voted on Tuesdays since the mid-19th century, when Congress decided to establish a single national voting day, historian Don Ritchie told NPR. Sunday—the day on which most other democratic countries hold their elections—was ruled out because it was the Sabbath. Other days were nixed for reasons that have long since become irrelevant: Monday was too close to the Sabbath for voters who needed to travel long distances to get to their ballot stations, Wednesday was the traditional market day, etc.

Some states have alleviated the issue by allowing early voting. But since 2010, seven states have scaled back early voting periods, according to the Brennan Center. In 2011, Ohio Republican lawmakers eliminated the so-called golden week—which allowed voters to register and vote on the same day for a six-day period. More than 80,000 people voted during the golden week in 2012.


Voter Suppression

A series of developments, including a 2013 Supreme Court decision truncating the 1965 Voting Rights Act, have erected new voting hurdles in recent years that disproportionately affect African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

In 2016, 14 states had new voting restrictions in place before the presidential election that delivered President Donald Trump to power. They included requirements of proof of citizenship and purges of inactive voters on voter rolls. (In June, a federal judge struck down a Kansas law requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.)

Republican lawmakers have justified the moves as necessary to prevent voter fraud, but they seem to target particular voting groups. Seven of the 11 states that had the highest African-American turnout in the 2008 election of Obama faced new voting restrictions by 2014, according to the Brennan Center.


The Pushback

The ACLU and other rights groups have been mounting legal challenges against restrictive voting laws, while some states are pressing for laws that would expand the nation’s voting franchise. Since 2015, 13 states and the District of Columbia have passed automatic voter registration laws, according to the ACLU. Sixteen states, plus D.C., allow voters to register on Election Day. Florida is set to vote Tuesday on a law that would extend voting rights to about 1.4 million people with felony convictions, excluding those guilty of murder or sexual crimes.

“If we are really going to address problems of voting, we would really try to expand participation by making it easier to vote and increasing our turnout,” said the ACLU’s Ebenstein.

“But a lot of states are looking to do the opposite, to narrow and restrict the electorate. The real problem with our democracy is turnout.”

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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