We Can't Just Play Defense on Voting Access. It's Time to Make Voting Easier.
When I think of the 2012 Obama campaign, I am proud of so many things we accomplished. But one thing I wasn't totally satisfied with was voter turnout.
It's not that we didn't meet our goals-we actually surpassed them, especially in key states. The numbers were stark: We won nine of the ten battleground states, registered 1.8 million new voters, and built a grassroots army of more than 2 million volunteers who made 146 million calls and door knocks over the course of the electoral cycle. Yet the really telling stats are the ones no one is discussing-specifically who failed to cast his or her vote in either this past election or any election in the last decade.
In 2012, 60 percent of eligible voters (129 million American citizens) headed to the polling booth, including the largest number of voters ever among African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans, and large numbers of women and young people-many of whom voted for the first time ever. But when 40 percent (86 million American citizen adults) are not voting, the simple fact is our society-and democracy writ large-suffers. The fundamental problem is that the way we exercise our right to vote remains trapped in the 19th century. Some election officials still use unwieldy reams of paper to check off voters, voting machines vary from precinct to precinct and frequently break, and voters are driving to city hall or the public library to get their voter registration forms in many states.
What's more, it's costing Americans to participate in the process both in terms of the time and effort they must invest in order to register and vote-and in taxpayer dollars. In Oregon, where voter turnout is remarkably high in comparison with the rest of the nation, the state spends $4.11 to process each voter registration form. Meanwhile in Canada, the average cost is less than thirty-five cents.
At the same time, lines to cast a ballot have been getting longer and longer, especially in urban and minority communities. Analytical studies of the 2012 election show the problem extends far beyond the anecdotal evidence of Florida early voters waiting for hours to enter the polling booth. In fact, MIT scholar Charles Stewart III found that while two-thirds of American voters waited less than ten minutes to vote, voters in low-income neighborhoods with high percentages of minorities often waited more than an hour. On average, African American voters across the country waited two times as long to vote as whites. Similarly, Hispanic voters waited a third longer than white voters.
The good news is the same innovative spirit and technological savvy that is making so many aspects of our lives easier-from travelling paper-free, to banking from home, to tracking on our smartphones how miles we've run or how many calories we've consumed-can also fix the problems with the way we vote. Digital technology and big data systems are continuing to change the world in which we live by helping us track massive amounts of data, protect against fraud, and democratize things that used to be the sole property of the elite and well-connected. It makes sense that those tools can help lead us to a more just and effective voting system as well.
The solutions already exist, and the policies are simply waiting to be adopted and enacted. In particular, by expanding online and automated voter registration, permitting no-excuse vote-by-mail, extending early voting, and implementing portable and Election Day registration, we can finally bring our voting system into the 21st century.
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