It's primary day in California -- as well as a contest much more significant, recall day in Wisconsin. It's a Tuesday in June. Have you ever wondered why we vote in mid-week? The TED talk above tells you.
An Australian, looking bemusedly at the crazy quilt U.S. electoral landscape, had some suggestions for making more sense of it:
He doesn't mention that Aussies make voting (or at least signing in to vote) mandatory; people who don't pick up their ballots pay a small fine.
Those are good ideas, but I've got more. Mine derive from decades of working to increase electoral participation, especially among people who are new to the country, new to voting, or pushed to the margins of society. I'm all too aware that most of my suggestions are either politically impossible or run against the current of contemporary trends, but I'm pretty sure they point in the right direction if we care about the health of democracy.
1) End registration hurdles. Automatically register every citizen on their turning 18 or being naturalized. Provide each new voter, for free, a computer readable voting card. (Yes, this would be a national ID -- what of it? Most everyone is already giving up any vestige of privacy on Facebook etc. Anonymity that depends on the technical incapacity of government to track individuals is over. We need to forget it and defend our freedoms by other means than hiding out.)
2) Computerize voting to overcome the costs and complications of local ballots. What if the citizen with a voting card moves? Doesn't she/he need to register again so as to vote on different local candidates and propositions? No. The voter should be able to come to any polling terminal, scan his/her voting card, enter a current address, and see on the screen the proper ballot for the address. In fact, there would remain no need for hundreds of thousands of local polling places; any terminal in a state (or even the country) could be programed to offer the appropriate localized ballot based on the voter's address. Too difficult? Nonsense, think what Google does all the time!
3) Standardize election days and make them holidays. One reason for low participation is that we vote too often on too many obscure things at odd times. I would like to see two standing election opportunities every year on which all contests would take place. I like the idea of times that usually have good weather. And I think this might be easier if elections occurred on dates that are already de facto holidays. Two-day long voting windows could help accommodate people's work and religious schedules. How about holding all elections on either the Saturday/Sunday of Memorial Day weekend or the Saturday/Sunday of Labor Day weekend? If we really needed another date for some reason (and it ought to be darn good!), stick in another election on the Saturday/Sunday of Presidents' Day weekend. Celebrate these days as Citizenship Days -- build up to them with festivities of democracy and freedom. Make voting exciting and a collective national celebration.
4) Reduce or do away with as much absentee and early voting as possible. This is the corollary of the previous suggestion. We think making voting easier should increase participation, but I am convinced that over time "convenience voting" will instead undermine it. Voting should not be something that individuals do alone. Sure, we want an individual secret ballot, but choosing who governs us and their direction is a collective political activity. A healthy democracy thrives when we feel we are all part of a exciting national process together. Voting loses a vital component of citizenship when it is a marginal activity, something we squeeze in alone at home after finally getting the kids to bed or dutifully check off. Requiring people to vote on the national Citizenship Days at a reduced number of polling terminals will present some obstacles, but making registration easy and election day a sort of holiday should limit the burden while increasing the moral seriousness of the activity. Democratic citizenship does require some effort. (And there could certainly be some accommodation for citizens genuinely unable to get to the polls …)
5) Ensure that people believe that the voting system is fair and their vote is counted. On this I think the Aussie is right: elections should be run by governments, not by private enterprises making a profit. If we put our minds to it, we could (and will) implement computerization of the voting process while preventing corrupting highjinks. Not that some entities won't try; that's been going on as long as humans have held elections.
6) Legalize small rewards for participation. What? Didn't I just say that attempts to corrupt the process will always be with us? That's not what I'm talking about in this item. Rather, I think we should encourage civic groups and political parties to hold Citizenship Day festivals -- seasonal barbecues in parks spring to mind. Citizens who could show a voting receipt would get a free hot dog or vegan burger -- nothing fancy, just the opportunity to get together with fellow citizens to bask in participating in our democracy. Maybe this would be popular; maybe not. It might depend on weather. But it is certainly culturally appropriate in our society and worth trying!
7) If all this were in place, then adopt the Aussie system of mandatory participation. Freedom isn't free, after all. If we want self-government, we have to expend some effort. You wouldn't have to actually cast a ballot -- after signing in with your voting card, you could hit a "spoil" or "none of the above" button on the computer terminal. But just being there needs to be part of citizenship, not a meaningless option, seldom exercised.