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Off Main: Voting for change

Last modified: 4/10/2015 9:17:01 AM
President Obama raised eyebrows last month when he appeared to endorse mandatory voting. At a Cleveland town hall meeting, he was asked how to fight the influence of money in politics. He suggested that requiring citizens to vote might do just that.

“It would be transformative if everybody voted – that would counteract money more than anything,” he told the audience.

Cue outrage from the right, accusing the president of socialist fantasizing. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest quickly walked back the statement, and that was that. Nothing else to see here.

But it’s worth thinking about voting, given that it’s the basis of our system of government. Mandatory voting, even though it’s used in Australia, is probably not a good idea. If you consider it for a moment, making everyone vote wouldn’t necessarily counteract the influence of money in politics. If anything, bringing in more low-information voters might make it worse.

What our country should be doing, though, is making it as easy as possible to vote. There has been scattered progress toward that goal – New Hampshire’s same-day registration is a model for the country – but so much more could be done. After all, if people don’t want to vote or don’t think they’re informed enough, we shouldn’t force them. But if they want to, if they’re interested, shouldn’t we go out of our way to help them?

Here are some suggestions.

Election Day

Voting on Tuesdays makes no sense.

For those with inflexible working schedules, weekday elections pose real challenges. They either have to rise early and brave lines at the polling place or take a risk and try after work, knowing that time might run out before they can cast a ballot. And if the choice is casting a ballot or keeping their job, most people will pick the second option.

So let’s change it. Move Election Day to a Saturday or Sunday. Better yet, why not make it all weekend? The benefits should be obvious – not only could more people vote more easily but more could volunteer to staff polling places. More children could visit, to learn about the importance of voting to democracy.

But let’s say we’re devoted to Tuesdays and can’t ever, won’t ever change that. Fine. Then why not make Election Day a federal holiday? Imagine the sales that stores could hold: Show off your “I voted” sticker and get 25 percent off anything in the store. You could even add some holiday trappings, such as Election Eve, when children would leave out milk and cookies for whichever candidate visited their house.

On second thought, that sounds pretty creepy.

Voting methods

Another voting tradition that makes no sense: the paper ballot, filled out in person at a polling place.

There are other options. Oregon, for example, conducts elections exclusively by mail. Don’t have a stamp? No problem. The state offers special ballot drop-off boxes that accept ballots up through the close of Election Day. Washington and Colorado have followed suit.

Besides making it incredibly simple and easy for all to vote, the mail system saves money. The states are able to phase out their physical polling places and poll workers, saving some $2 million for each election cycle.

Voter registration

Again, the tradition of heading to town hall and filling out a voter registration form – or even mailing one in – seems antiquated and burdensome.

Why shouldn’t registration be automatic? Oregon is once again leading the way. Last month, its governor signed a bill that would essentially register anyone licensed to drive in the state. (If someone has dealt with the state’s DMV since 2013 but isn’t registered, they will receive a ballot for the next election.)

State motor vehicle departments have this information. Why shouldn’t they use it?

But if that’s too much, if mandating makes you queasy, why not make registration available online? More than 20 states (but not New Hampshire) have created such systems, with more on the way.

Above and beyond

States have experimented with other methods of expanding access to the ballot box.

Take advance voting, in which certain polling places are open for days in advance of actual voting. Or expanded absentee voting, essentially allowing anyone to cast a vote by mail for any reason. Polling places can be ordered to remain open if lines remain at closing time.

The point is, we have options aplenty for making voting accessible to all. The question is whether we have the desire or will to do so.

Look, I’ve avoided the thorny question of voter ID laws here because I think they’re a distraction. Many Democrats hate them, many Republicans love them, but in the end they seem not to affect turnout too much. Most people have official, government-issued IDs, and those who don’t can be prompted to if they realize their right to vote is at risk.

Instead, what’s most important is that our voting system stay in touch with how this country’s residents live. We spend a lot of time online, and we prefer to do things from the comfort of our own homes. Why shouldn’t our elections follow our lead?

Not everyone wants to vote. And we shouldn’t make them. But if you want to, an antiquated system shouldn’t stand in your way.

(Clay Wirestone can be reached at 369-3305, cwirestone@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ClayWires.)


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