Maine routinely has one of the highest voter turnouts in the country. Yet, with 74 percent of Maine’s eligible voters casting a ballot in last November’s presidential election — the second highest in the nation — a quarter of the state’s voters of still didn’t bother.
Some elections, like municipal budget votes and off-year statewide elections on referendum issues, garner just 10 percent voter turnout.
At a time when Americans are increasingly frustrated with their government, more people need to participate by voting.
Several U.S. senators, including Angus King, have sponsored a bill to move federal elections to weekends in hopes of increasing turnout.
Holding federal and many statewide elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of the month dates to the mid-1800s. Back then, when it could take a day by horse and carriage to get to the county seat to vote, the concern was making sure elections didn’t interfere with farming. Tuesday was chosen because that day didn’t interfere with the sabbath or market days, says Why Tuesday? a group working to draw attention to America’s low voter turnout and ways to improve it.
We’re no longer a nation of farmers. So, an update is long overdue.
Last November, only 56 percent of America’s voting age population went to the polls. This puts the U.S. well behind most of its economically developed peers.
In their most recent national elections, Belgium had the highest voting rate — 87.2 percent — followed by Sweden and South Korea with 83 percent and 78 percent, respectively, according to the Pew Research Center.
Belgium is one of 24 countries that has a compulsory voter law. These laws are not strictly enforced and fines for not voting are low ($15 in U.S. dollars in Australia), but they tend to increase turnout. In addition to encouraging more people to vote, compulsory voting also brings out a more diverse group of people.
Compulsory voting wouldn’t go over well in the U.S. There are other options. One is the weekend voting proposed by King. France’s May election for prime minister was held on a Sunday. Turnout was 68 percent.
Without work obligations, voting on weekends can be easier. Mark Franklin, a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut reported that weekend voting could increase participation by up to 7 percent.
The problem starts well before election day. It is not surprising that the state’s with the highest voter turnout, including Maine, allow same-day registration. Restrictive voter registration requirements depress voter turnout by as much as 14 percent. One way to remedy this is to have automatic voter registration, which is used in many other countries. Instead, the U.S. is moving in the opposite direction fueled by misplaced fears of voter fraud.
Three states, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, conduct elections entirely by mail. Last year, Colorado’s turnout was 72 percent, Oregon’s was 68 percent and Washington saw 66 percent voter turnout, all well above the national average. Adoption of all-mail ballots has been slow because of concerns about security and cost as all ballots must be counted by a machine.
The biggest hurdle to changes, like mail-in ballots, to increase voter participation? Politicians, Phil Keisling, director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University’s Mark O. Hatfield School of Government, told Governing magazine. There is a “craven fear of politicians … on both sides of the aisle that this is bad for their side.”
We know what can be done to increase voter participation. It is political inertia and self interest that is stopping changes.