Modernizing America’s Voting System to Improve Voter Turnout

Reeve Jacobus, MPP Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives


Preliminary analyses suggest that young adults voted at a historically high rate in the 2018 midterm elections. A report by The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) estimates that 31 percent of young people aged 18 to 29 turned out to vote in November, up 10 percentage points from the 2014 midterm election. While further analysis is needed, these early numbers suggest that the 2018 midterms saw the highest youth turnout rate in at least 25 years.

However, young people continue to vote at lower rates than older Americans. There are a number of theories offered each election year that attempt to explain this gap in political participation, including self-serving attitudeslack of interest in politics, or lack of sufficient civic education. While there are many potential causes of low youth voter participation, there are policy changes that states can consider to encourage young people to exercise their right to vote.

Barriers to Voter Participation in 2018

America’s voting system is struggling to modernize and keep up with the rapid pace of technological and generational change. Since most election policies in America are enacted at the state and local level, America’s voting system actually comprises each state’s election laws, many of which are decades old. In the name of preventing voter fraud, which is extremely rare, states have enacted complicated absentee procedures, restrictive voter ID practices, and unnecessary voter roll purges that often exclude young people.

In addition to these laws that often make the headlines, there may be other overlooked barriers young people face when they try to vote. For example, Fairfax County, VA recently conducted a focus group of its summer interns and found that these students were unsure where to purchase stamps to mail their absentee ballots. For what it’s worth, USPS guidelines suggest voting-designated mail can be accepted without postage, but many people are unaware. Students in this focus group not only admitted they didn’t know where to get stamps, but they also explained that they knew peers that had this same problem. While older Americans might roll their eyes, this confusion makes sense for a younger generation that increasingly communicates through the internet and social media and less often through conventional mail services (which have been declining over the past decade).

Current Efforts to Modernize and Streamline Voter Registration

Some states have successfully modernized aspects of the voter registration process to address ballot barriers. One policy currently gaining momentum around the country is automatic voter registration. Under this system, citizens who interact with a government agency are automatically registered to vote and agencies can share voter information with election officials. Thirteen states and D.C. have already approved automatic voter registration, accounting for one-third of the country’s population. Furthermore, 38 states and D.C. allow online voter registration, which provides an alternative to the traditional process of paper registration. Fifteen states allow same-day registration, giving residents the option to register and cast a ballot on Election Day. Same-day registration allows voters to register when they show up to the polls, streamlining the process and reduces the burden on geographically mobile citizens such as younger and lower-income voters.

Along with these technical policies, states and communities could also enact policies designed to encourage young people to vote. For example, sixteen states and DC permit preregistration, allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to preregister so that they are automatically eligible to vote when they turn 18. States, communities, and schools can also educate students about voting, with the hope of creating a culture of voting and civic engagement in schools. For instance, Ohio has created the Grads Vote program, which helps conduct voting outreach to high school students around the state and sends a registration form to every graduating student.

Modernized Voting Policies and Voter Turnout

States that have enacted these modernized methods of voter registration have seen higher rates of voter registration and turnout. A study published in September created a Cost of Voting Index (COVI) for each state. Colorado, which uses automatic voter registration, online voter registration, same-day registration, and preregistration, ranks second. These methods led to Colorado being one to the highest turnout states in the 2016 election, with 72 percent of the voting eligible population turning out. Mississippi, on the other hand, employs none of these methods and ranks last in the COVI. Consequently, Mississippi turned out at 55 percent, ranking near the bottom of states in 2016. The relationship between these modernized policies and higher turnout is correlational at this point, and more research is necessary to determine if they are actually causing more Americans to head to the voting booth.

A system of voting that caters to all Americans is essential to a functioning democracy. Ideally, public policies should modernize and adapt to changes in society and technology. These aforementioned policies benefit all Americans who want a say in the way their government runs, but they especially benefit younger people who will experience the effects of present-day policies for decades. If the United States wants to ensure that its democracy continues to operate through the direction of its citizens, passing laws that make it easier to vote, and not harder, could pay off for generations to come.

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