Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Why do we vote on Tuesday?
And other fantasies for reinvigorating citizenship…

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:

Hold the Presidential election on the weekend, when not as many people are working a full day. Also make the queues manageable. We have never had to stand in line for hours in Australia. Who can afford to take a day off work to vote?!!? And while you're at it standardize voting technology and take it out of the hands of private companies, where the outsourcing  relationship compromises the perception of integrity - or WORSE.

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.


Ronni Bennett said...

All good thoughts, but I need to get on my elder hobby horse in relation to a couple of them.

Voting on holiday weekends: Many, many people go away for long weekends or entertain friends and relatives who visit from elsewhere or use those days as time of family gatherings, travel, ball games, etc. and are unlikely to want voting to interrupt one of the few three-days-in-a-row weekends they get.

Holiday voting would make it difficult for old people who depend on friends and relatives to help them get around who may be away; or who use public transportation which operates on reduced schedules on holiday.

There is no reason, however, we shouldn't move elections to a regular Saturday and/or Sunday or create a voting holiday as you suggest. Just don't make it a Friday or Monday which would create another three-day-holiday for people to leave town instead of voting.

Although I agree - to a point - that voting by mail takes away the community engagement of going to a polling station, over the past six years I've lived in two states that vote by mail - Maine and Oregon.

Vote by mail is a boon for old people who find it difficult to get out and about, may rely on public transportation and may not be physically able to wait on line for several hours when polls are busy.

I voted both ways in Maine - I was glad I'd done it by mail the year there were two feet of fresh snow on the ground election day morning.

In person was fine too although unlike New York City where there can be easily a hundred people ahead of you on line to chat with, I was the only voter at the precinct at 9AM. So much for community.

But I like the idea of having a choice, precinct or mail. If I recall correctly, voting by mail was experimental when I was in Maine and one needed to request a mail ballot. Here in Oregon, vote by mail only has been in effect for about 20 years without any apparent ill effects.

Certainly we should get Diebold and other private companies out of the voting business, and although it would solve problems like the recent restrictions on registration in some states, I need to think about that national id card. There are some possible unintended consequences worth considering first.

A whole lot of interesting stuff to think about in this post, Jan.

janinsanfran said...

Good thoughts Ronni -- if we don't make voting work for old people, we're doing wrong.

I do need to argue against widespread and unthinking adoption of "convenience voting" -- vote by mail and vote all month -- though. There is pretty good research that the people who take advantage of it are already voters and that any increase in turnout is a blip. Your state is the place that provides the numbers. Our voting arrangements should be designed to make voting a "big deal" and "not to be missed" -- not something to slip by with minimal notice.

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