A paralyzed Congress and potentially compromised president aside, American voters themselves have become ambivalent toward even registering to vote in the first place. This not only lowers the population of prospective voters but also skews election results, which, in turn, impacts future policy decisions. Specifically, requiring people to manually register themselves causes the voting population to overrepresent the views of older, whiter and richer Americans while underrepresenting younger, less-affluent people of color.
To combat this trend, as of 2014, some 21 states have implemented online-registration systems -- that covers roughly 47 percent of the American population. "Online voter registration saves taxpayer dollars, increases the accuracy of voter rolls, and provides a convenient option for Americans who wish to register or update their information," a Pew Charitable Trusts study from that same year states. However, there are still a number of issues with these systems that can be addressed to further improve their effectiveness.
Most of these systems force citizens to have either a state-issued ID or driver's license in order to use them, a requirement that disproportionately impacts low-income, minority, elderly and disabled individuals. The problem is further exacerbated when politicians put their thumbs on the scales of democracy in order to gain an advantage, as Alabama Republicans did in 2015 when they closed 31 DMVs in majority poor and black counties.
This is exactly the sort of shenanigans that the League of Women Voters is resisting. "We've really been pushing to have online registration programs be more inclusive than what they currently are," Senecal said, "making sure all NVRA -- National Voter Registration Act -- agencies are tied into the online system.
"In reality, if you're a first-time voter, under the Help America Vote Act, you're required to show identification the first time you go to vote, so why can't you be on the rolls?" she continued. Senecal pointed out that the entire reason for allowing people to register to vote at the same time that they apply for a driver's license is so that there will be a signature on file when the person goes to vote. "But if you're already showing ID," Senecal said, "just collect the signature in person on Election Day."
Beyond that, select states are beginning to utilize novel methods to increase voter-registration levels, including advocating for same-day registration, which a 2015 University of Florida study suggests boosts participation. "Election Day registration is the reform that has repeatedly demonstrated through research and actual election implementation to increase turnout," Senecal argued. "Especially in communities that are underrepresented."
However, actually motivating voters to get out to the polls offers unique challenges. The League of Women Voters argues in favor of early-voting practices such as polling places "that include evening and weekend hours, especially the weekend before Election Day," Senecal said. "As an example, in New Hampshire there's no early voting; they just had this northeaster [on March 13th] and there was a little town election yesterday, and you couldn't go vote. Many people couldn't go vote."
Voting advocates in California, for example, are in the midst of a registration drive through the state's county jails as part of the American Civil Liberties Union's Unlock the Vote campaign.
"No one should be denied their constitutional rights," Los Angeles Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-authored the plan, told the Los Angeles Times in February. "I think voter registration efforts in the jails ought to be viewed as a significant piece to anti-recidivism and reentry." So far, more than 600 inmates have registered to vote, out of an county jail population of 17,500. Only those serving time for low-level offenses like parole violations are eligible, mind you. Those serving time in state or federal prisons (as well as inmates found to be mentally incompetent) are ineligible.
"I think voter registration efforts in the jails ought to be viewed as a significant piece to anti-recidivism and reentry."
Even without considering voting rights, incarceration causes other electoral issues -- specifically, where these people are incarcerated. Since the decennial census counts prisoners as residing in the counties where they're incarcerated rather than where they lived before, when those inmates are released back into society, they are moving back into areas where their votes aren't represented.
"That means that the people who have voting rights in those areas have a greater percentage of power than other people in their state," Senecal explained. For example, "if there's 200,000 people per district and 50,000 of them are in various prisons, that means 150,000 people are represented by a congressperson versus 200,000 in another district."
California has also recently launched a new program that pre-registers teens to vote, building off the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. On Jan. 1st, 2019, it will begin automatically registering 16- and 17-year-olds when they get their driver's licenses, enabling them to vote as soon as they turn 18. The program is expected to enfranchise as many as 200,000 people annually. Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill in February codifying the pre-registration program into law as an expansion of the state's new Automatic Voter Registration system, making California the second state to do so.
Oregon was the first. Its Automatic Voter Registration system went live in Jan. 2016. According to The Nation, "Eligible voters who have a qualifying interaction with the DMV are notified by mail that they will be added to the voter rolls, unless they decline registration or opt out within 21 days by returning a postcard to the state's election authorities." Nearly every other state in the nation (save for California and North Dakota, which do not require registration in order to vote) conversely demands that people take affirmative action to register themselves.
Of the 288,516 Oregonians who registered to vote for the first time in 2016, 66 percent of them were signed up through the AVR. What's more, 36 percent of those signed up through the AVR -- some 67,902 people -- went on to vote that year. The result: Between 2012 and 2016, voter turnout in Oregon increased by 4 percent, compared with just 1.6 percent nationally over the same period.
The push for automatic registration appears to be gaining momentum. As of 2018, nine states and DC have implemented AVRs with 15 more having submitted legislation to install or expand these systems this year. Another 10 states are already debating similar legislation introduced in previous congressional sessions, according to the Brennan Center.
In the end, our electoral system remains in the same state of disrepair as the rest of our aging infrastructure. Just like Mississippi's bridges, our voting operations are out of date, grossly underfunded, running on equipment decades past the end of its service life and now pose a hazard to the citizens they were designed to serve. This has resulted in anemic turnout for any race other than marquee presidential contests, and voters' lack of interest is compounded by both bureaucratic and systemic roadblocks that prevent sizable percentages of the US population from casting their votes. These low turnouts have only served to further entrench partisan politics, shifting the focus of elections from substantively debating policy to simply riling up one's political base hard enough to get them to the polls. In turn, this entrenchment has led to even sleazier partisan tricks such as the gerrymandering of congressional districts, splitting and concentrating political opposition to more easily remain in power.
But for all the electoral challenges the republic currently faces, numerous nonpartisan organizations and individuals are working tirelessly to improve our voting system. The League of Women Voters has long lobbied for automatic voter registration, a valuable enfranchisement tool that drastically increases the political voice of America's most-often overlooked populations -- a mechanism that states across the nation are increasingly adopting on their own -- while the American Civil Liberties Union's Unlock the Vote campaign has helped register almost 1,000 more. Rice University Professor Dan Wallach and his team have spent the better part of a decade building the next big thing in secure voting machines. The STAR-Vote system offers the possibility of elections free from foreign interference -- if only they could find a vendor to produce it. And Wendy K. Tam Cho, a professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has brought congressional redistricting into the Supercomputing Age with the development of PEAR. But despite its ambitious goals, that project must reckon with technical issues of its own before being brought online for the public's benefit.
These are all examples of the reforms that can be accomplished by putting country over party. But while they're certainly not alone, these efforts aren't nearly enough. American democracy cannot flourish with only a fraction of its citizens remaining politically engaged. In order to scale these solutions to the point where they can positively impact both political institutions and the people whom those institutions are supposed to protect, all Americans must make their voices heard to their elected officials, whether through voting or by protest. Because if we don't fix our democracy, nobody else will.
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